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Constrained CfE's hard road to liberation

"What did you get for your Highers?" It's a question Scots still find people asking them, in pub and interview room alike, decades after they leave school; Higher grades propel them towards careers of choice, or weigh them down with chains of perceived inferiority. For most, the barometer of success at school remains the ability to race through two terms of one particular school year.

No matter how noble the aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence to unshackle learning, school remains constricted: most learning takes place in standalone, purpose-built edifices; days and terms begin and end at specified times; secondary education divides the world into discrete subjects; success is judged by artificial tests of recall. "Scrap all exams" was one of the most popular ideas at the recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas; that prospect remains distant.

Last Sunday showed the value in allowing young people to choose where and what to learn: a pivotal moment in the career of Andy Murray, Wimbledon champion, came at 15 when, disillusioned by his lack of progress in the UK, he relocated to Barcelona. CfE aspires to give young people freedom to set the pace and parameters of their learning.

But there are murmurs of discontent that CfE's "outcomes and experiences", far from providing a springboard to this panacea, are becoming diktats to be slavishly followed. That chimes with the University of Stirling's Dr Jenny Reeves, who has tracked CfE policy documents over several years (page 6) and detected a serious dilution of initial radicalism.

Her findings irked Bruce Robertson, of education directors' body ADES, who said "new and very radical approaches" to the senior phase were being planned, but would take time to bed in. Similarly, School Leaders Scotland general secretary Ken Cunningham did not recognise a world where cold, hard educational reality had scrubbed away CfE's idealism.

"If we can control and balance the legitimate need for ways of measuring success for schools, teachers and students, but not let it become the driving force, cutting across all we do," he said, "then we stand a chance of CfE becoming what I hope it was always meant to be: a learning environment where all young people have an equal chance of accessing a first-rate education, leading to a purposeful, productive and rewarding life in society."

CfE is making waves outwith Scotland. TESS revealed last week that Guernsey, concerned about educational reforms in England, may throw in its lot with Scotland. The New York Times reported that Scotland had abolished exams for 16-year-olds; well, no, but at least the creation of more rounded qualifications is being noticed.

CfE is a work in progress. The monolithic institution of school was never going to be transformed overnight - bit by bit, though, educators across Scotland are chipping away at its hard edges.

Henry Hepburn, TESS reporter. henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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