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Director spurns narrow goals of the curriculum

David Henderson reports from the Catholic heads' conference in Crieff.

PLAYING Bassanio in the end of term play, securing a draw against a world chess champion and being non-scoring striker in the football team were the things that mattered in Michael O'Neill's schooldays when all the facts and figures of the subjects were long forgotten, the director of education in North Lanarkshire confessed last week.

Life skills and broad experiences acquired during school were as vital as qualifications, Mr O'Neill told Catholic secondary heads at their conference in Crieff. "It was about self-belief, attitudes, transferable skills and core skills."

Mr O'Neill stepped up his campaign for an end to the strait-jacket curriculum he believes marginalises the life skills that matter to young people and called for a wide debate on the Scottish Executive's priorities for education, launched six weeks ago.

"If we are not careful we will have another set of priorities that will tie us into a narrow focus. If national priorities end up as another set of targets on Standard grade or exams etc, we will have lost it," he cautioned.

Scottish education had been successful in the past 20 years in raising standards, improving skills and increasing numbers entering further and higher education but criticism from the CBI that schools were not preparing young people was also valid.

"If we look into the future, the skills and attitudes required to help young people succeed are currently marginalised and seen as less important than the traditional curriculum. Current research demonstrates the importance of emotional and multiple intelligences and the need to learn how to learn. You acquire learning skills rather than just content."

Mr O'Neill added: "We have to ask ourselves is our current secondary curriculum more about a structure that suits the staffing profile of the 1970s and the senior secondary academic needs of the Empire and the Victorians rater than the needs of pupils on the brink of the third millennium?"

North Lanarkshire's director, who has already challenged the curriculum orthodoxy in primary and the early years of secondary, demanded further flexibility to build on strengths and aptitudes. Pupils were being forced into subjects they did not want to study, damaging their motivation. "For many it's an entitlement to fail. I am not denying the importance of breadth and balance - but how much, for how long?"

Mr O'Neill added: "The assumption is that pupils should be forced to persist with subjects they are doomed to fail or at best achieve less than they might have done had they been able to focus on subjects of their own choice. Other countries have moved to a more limited core in the curriculum with more flexibility and more choice."

The principles of choice and diversity the Government applied to education action plan schools and specialist schools in music, sport and modern languages should be available for all. "If we are going to raise achievement in the 21st century, are we about flexibility or conformity? Is it about diversity or uniformity?"

Innovation was being stifled by ministers and the Scottish Executive focus on delivering a national curriculum. Radical changes to make the educational dimension of social inclusion a success were being thwarted.

Touching on other areas, Mr O'Neill warned that there might be no easy answer to teacher recruitment even after the McCrone inquiry reports. Even New Zealand, where salaries were doubled, found it difficult to recruit because of the perception among young people that teaching was not an attractive career.

He also called for the Executive to spread subsidies nationally to help tackle the backlog of school repairs. Ten authorities taking part in public private partnerships had been heavily subsidised but councils outwith the scheme were not. North Lanarkshire needed pound;80 million it did not have.

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