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Curricular reform: the devil is in the big idea, not the detail

It can take many years for the big ideas in documents like A Curriculum for Excellence to sink in, according to an expert from New Zealand who saw her country go through similar curricular reform.

Rose Hague, a senior adviser from New Zealand's Ministry of Education on a year-long secondment with Learning and Teaching Scotland, has seen how concentrating on the detail of a new curriculum can obscure its fundamental aims.

She addressed the national continuing professional development conference in Edinburgh last week, and explained that New Zealand had introduced an "outcomes-based" curriculum in the early 1990s, with an emphasis on holistic education and putting the child at the centre of learning.

But, Ms Hague explained, teachers could not see the defining "vision" at first. The new curriculum had a series of "essential skills", and these were more prominent in teachers' minds: they became a "checklist".

In 2002, a "stocktake" of progress revealed that a failure to understand the new curriculum was emerging from teachers' practice.

The review recommended that essential learning had to be "lessened and clarified". It advised that teachers' and schools' "ownership" of the curriculum should be more strongly encouraged. The review also led to a single curriculum document.

The insight from New Zealand was timely, given the recent publication of the final experiences and outcomes for A Curriculum for Excellence. Ms Hague's advice was to work with the "intent of the document", rather than focusing purely on experiences and outcomes.

She told The TESS that Scotland should find itself better able to keep the "vision" of A Curriculum for Excellence to the forefront, because documents such as Building the Curriculum 2 and 3 had encouraged national debate about the reform's grand aims.

Ms Hague explained that the similarities between curricular change in the two countries had brought about her secondment. Ms Hague's advice was to work with the "intent of the document" rather than focusing purely on the experiences and outcomes.

New Zealand, for example, has no local authorities, and a great deal of faith is put in teachers' and schools' ability to tailor education to local needs.

Neither is there any statutory CPD entitlement, nor central funding for continuing professional development. Schools decide what CPD should be available and they fund it from their own budgets. Ms Hague said this approach worked "really well", as it meant there were strong connections between training and a school's needs.

She is an admirer of the consistency of the Scottish approach, in which there is an expectation that a teacher will take part in 35 hours of CPD a year.

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