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Eureka! The three steps to achievement

One of the conclusions I have come to over the years is that, in order to facilitate real change in any system, it's necessary to change the landscape. It's come to me slowly - and for all that, I believe focusing on cultural change is still fundamentally the correct route to improvement. I've also come to recognise that we just tinker at the edges if we are asking teachers to change their practice within a system where the fundamental features remain static.

So when it comes to A Curriculum for Excellence, I fear that little will change unless we shift some of the key building blocks on which our practice is based. That is, how we give credit for learning, how we organise learning and how we deliver learning.

My thinking on this has been influenced by a recent trip to New Zealand where I encountered their qualifications system. Much like our Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), theirs is based on levels and associated credits for learning.

However, there are two important features of their system, which appear to have an advantage over our version. First, their levels and credits equate exactly with university entrance requirements, whereas SCQF has to be translated into UCAS points; and second, they differentiate outcome by a simple system of "pass", "merit" and "excellence" in any unit of study.

A New Zealand student needs 80 credits to gain a National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) at any level. The certificate can be endorsed with "merit" if 50 of these points are achieved that way, or with "excellence" if 50 points are at that level.

It was while this was fresh in my mind that I recently visited Jewel and Esk College with a group of our secondary headteachers and senior staff. In something of a eureka moment, I began to see how we might begin to change the landscape for organising and delivering learning in our schools; and the example has been under our nose for a number of years now - you don't even have to go to the other side of the world!

One of the understandable strategic elements in how A Curriculum for Excellence is being implemented has been to try to keep the qualifications issue separate from curriculum development, for fear that the focus of secondary teachers would always swing to what was going to be tested and ignore some of the more fundamental questions about the experiences and outcomes of the courses they taught.

However, with hindsight, this may have been a mistake, as it denies the reality of secondary education and its links to access to employment and further and higher education.

The other lesson to be learnt from our New Zealand cousins and, more pertinently, from our colleagues in further and higher education, is how to trust internal assessment. I've written before about how colleges in Scotland can give credit for learning up to Higher National Diploma (which is a couple of notches beyond Advanced Higher level) without having to rely on any form of external assessment, while schools continue to have to rely heavily on external assessment - at levels of learning significantly below HND.

So how might we use this knowledge to create a framework within which our schools can innovate, develop practice and improve the outcomes for learners? Perhaps we could create a common assessment and accreditation system that could overlay the curricular model being developed in our schools?

Imagine a scenario where each relevant unit of work taught in S1-3 carried a credit for numeracy, literacy, health and well-being, and skills for work - that is, all those experiences and outcomes that are the responsibility of all teachers. By creating a matrix of learning experiences, learners could, through moderated internal assessment, which builds on formative assessment strategies, be awarded credits at a range of levels of learning with outcomes being recognised through "pass", "merit" and "excellence".

As these credits are accumulated, the learner could achieve a local "certificate of achievement" that could be endorsed with "merit" or "excellence". By the end of S3, a learner will have undertaken a broad education and will also have a record of achievements in these crucial building blocks for learning.

I believe that such a system would provide teachers with a clear framework, yet enable them to create innovative and challenging learning contexts where these outcomes can be achieved. This may be extended further by creating units of study to fill identified gaps in provision, which may not sit clearly within a single subject, such as, inter- disciplinary studies.

Finally, such a system would enable students to become familiar with the likely curricular structure and national accreditation model, which they will encounter in their senior phase of learning and beyond school in further and higher education.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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