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The CfE message just isn't getting through

At a Burns Supper last Saturday, one of my friends had something other than the Bard's legacy on his mind. "If a teacher tells me one more time that schools are preparing kids for jobs that don't yet exist, I'll go loopy," he said, thrusting a fork at his haggis with obvious irritation.

It's meant to be an inspiring, reassuring message, and it's one that you'll hear at education conferences and continuing professional development sessions across the land: Curriculum for Excellence has to give students skills that can be applied to all manner of situations, since technology is advancing so fast that we can't possibly predict the future demands of the job market.

But to my friend it was a hoary old chestnut, proffered meekly to parents in place of a proper explanation of CfE. "You know what's really obvious?" he said. "The teachers don't know what Curriculum for Excellence is either."

The jobs-that-don't-yet-exist aphorism is similar to the inert CfE jargon of "capacities", "experiences" and "outcomes". Admirable intentions lie behind such words, but they are meaningless babble without the conviction to realise the reform's original radical ideas.

If teachers are struggling with implementation of CfE, the wider public still doesn't know why we're bothering in the first place. "I thought Scotland already had one of the best education systems in the world," my friend said.

CfE has a drastic communication problem. If curricular reform ever hits the mainstream media, it's because something has gone wrong; successes fly under the radar. Policy documents, rife with buzzwords and repetitive truisms, are scarcely more enlightening to the layperson.

Parents such as my friend are taken aback when I explain that, for all its problems, CfE has won a multitude of admirers beyond Scotland: the Channel Islands education authorities who, fed up with education secretary for England Michael Gove, revealed last year that they were exploring conversion to the Scottish curriculum ("Guernsey may swap A-levels for Highers", 5 July 2013); the British Council directors in South Asia who see CfE's focus on creativity and problem-solving as ideal for meeting that region's exponential growth in demand for education ("South Asia wants some of what Scotland's having", 17 January).

CfE, fundamentally, means school for all: not just for those with a knack for regurgitating knowledge in exams but also those who in the past would have left school indifferent to, even embittered by, education. Yet as budgets keep tightening, there is more and more evidence of that ambition starting to ring hollow, of local authorities continuing to prioritise exam performance. This week (pages 16-18) we report outdoor education specialists' fears on that score.

It's being left up to teachers to shout from the rooftops why CfE matters. If they don't believe in it, no one else will.

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