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Enter the age of excellence

Neil Munro and Gillian Macdonald report on what the Education Minister claims is 'the most comprehensive modernisation in our schools for a generation'

Teachers received the go-ahead this week to push forward immediately with their own ideas for learning, and to apply a new flexibility in their classrooms.

The curriculum review group's proposals in A Curriculum for Excellence have been wholeheartedly accepted by Peter Peacock, Education Minister, and its recommendations take immediate effect.

"It can be used immediately by teachers and educators in early years centres, schools and colleges to examine and improve their practice," the ministerial response states. Much of the detail will only emerge as guidelines are published over the next couple of years.

At the heart of the review group's proposals lie four aspirations - that all children and young people should become "successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society and at work".

The whole curriculum reform will be measured against these aims. Phrases such as enthusiasm, motivation and openness to new thinking abound; how they will be achieved is outlined in the ministerial response.

For the first time there will be a single curriculum 3-18, supported by a "simple and effective structure of assessment and qualifications", which is intended to allow the right pace and challenge for young people, particularly at critical points such as the transition from nursery to primary and from primary to secondary.

Speaking at the launch of the modernisation programme, Mr Peacock said he was accepting "in full" the recommendations of the first phase of the review. This would be "the key liberator . . . opening up choice and flexibility in learning for the first time".

Literacy and numeracy will remain at the heart of learning, he said. The new curriculum will allow "more opportunity to study in depth earlier and still within a broad curriculum".

Greater and earlier choice for young people will be designed to help them realise their individual talents and close the opportunity gap by "better engaging those who currently switch off from formal education too young".

"It will allow more scope to progress through courses earlier and get more time for Highers and Advanced Highers. And it will allow more time for music and drama and sport and work-related learning in school," Mr Peacock said.

Detailed restructuring of the curriculum will begin immediately, under the leadership of Maggi Allan, director of education in South Lanarkshire, and engaging with teachers. The first stage of this second phase of reform will involve redesigning the science curriculum for implementation in 2006-07, removing overly prescriptive guidance that burdens the primary curriculum in areas such as expressive arts and environmental studies.

The curriculum review focuses predominantly on secondary schools, but changes will be introduced at all stages.

Nursery education is now universal for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it, but there are difficulties in the transition to primary.

These will be addressed by bringing the 3-5 and 5-14 guidelines together.

Pre-school approaches such as learning through play will be extended into the early years of primary.

The primary curriculum, long criticised for its overload, will be "decluttered". The first two years of secondary are notorious as gap years, where younger secondary pupils become demotivated. S1-S3 will be overhauled to "provide more choice for pupils, more time to be spent on literacy and numeracy skills, to inject greater pace, relevance and challenge to improve motivation and attainment", Mr Peacock said.

Age and stage regulations which currently restrict when pupils sit exams will, as expected, be abolished. Guidance will be issued to teachers.

Standard grade exams and their links with National Qualifications will also be reviewed. "While ensuring all that is good about Standard grade, the review will be designed to simplify the structure and improve progression for young people," Mr Peacock said.

New "skills for work" courses will be introduced as part of National Qualifications. "These courses will open up more choices for pupils and give equal status to vocational and more traditional qualifications," Mr Peacock said. Piloting will take place quickly.

Schools will be given greater freedom to "act in the interests of their pupils" and pupils will be able to exercise more choice.

"The (current) guidelines are very prescriptive, there is a huge breadth of subjects - at the expense of reasonable depth," Mr Peacock said. "We are revising the balance to allow teachers to do more of the learning they want to do."

Ian McMillan, director of CBI Scotland and a member of the review group, said: "If the new curriculum is implemented properly, pupils will be stimulated far more by what they learn, their interests will be retained and they will get much, much more out of education than they do at present.

"Time in the curriculum will be freed up to learn about the world of work, to learn about enterprise, to have some vocational options. And that will be good for employers, but it will also be good for the young people themselves."


* Decluttering primary

Guidelines will be streamlined to free space for pupils to achieve and teachers to teach. Unnecessary detail from existing 5-14 guidelines such as those on the expressive arts and environmental studies will go to allow teachers more flexibility and cut time spent on assessment.

* Overhauling S1-S3

A reformed approach to S1-S3, will increase opportunities for challenge, choice and motivation. Clear statements will be issued on literacy, numeracy and other essential attributes and skills. Content will be cut to increase work in depth. Opportunities for activities across subjects will lie at the heart of the curriculum. Greater choice will be introduced earlier to ensure a broad education. Pupils will then choose areas to pursue in more depth. Schools can choose new ways of timetabling or mixed-age classes, or have non-timetabled weeks for projects.

* Recognising achievement

Achievement will be recorded in new ways in S1-S3 to fit learning purposes.

This might include a mix of traditional assessment methods, self-assessment and recorded evidence of a performance. But it must not intrude on teaching and learning. It should be easily updated as the pupil progresses, building up to a "passport" to further learning and work but including achievements such as success in a school musical or contribution as a member of a team.

* Skills for work

A new qualification in learning about skills for work will be introduced for 14-16s. New courses, many in partnership with colleges, will develop knowledge and skills for employment through practical experience in careers such as engineering. New assessments and qualifications will sit alongside other subject-based qualifications.

* Science curriculum review

Reform of the curriculum will begin with science 3-18. Unnecessary or outdated content will be removed, gaps identified and filled, content updated and progression between stages and courses smoothed out.

* Assessment 3-14

Reforms will ensure that assessment supports learning and that there are valid and reliable measures of national levels of attainment in key areas.

* Age and stage regulations

Schools will be allowed to decide when a young person is ready to sit an exam, with safeguards.

* National Qualifications

A broader range of outcomes at S3-S6 and recognition of these achievements through accreditation

* School-college partnerships

These will be increased so that pupils have a high-quality experience in colleges and gain suitable recognition for their work. Specific qualifications for lecturers are being considered.

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