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Excellence is not optional

I know someone who stops her personal copy of The TESS during the summer because "there is not much in it". If this summer is anything to go by, this could not be further from the truth.

On returning from holiday, I caught up with two back copies that arrived when I was away. The middle two issues in July were so full of alarm on the front page, editorial, comment and letter columns that I half-expected that, before this column was published, A Curriculum for Excellence would appear in the obituaries.

In case, like my friend, you missed all this, here's a flavour. "Rescue proposed for ACfE" (front page, July 17); "A curriculum for ignorance", "Our curriculum is a joke that's been taken too far", "We can see through the techno-speak" (letters, July 17); "The architects of the reforms are in growing despair" (comment July 24); "Government loses ACfE plot" (comment July 24).

Most worrying is that the last article was from a secondary head who supports ACfE but felt unable to supply his or her name. The Government may want a free open and honest debate, but we obviously don't have one.

In the next two issues, Aberdeenshire's education director Bruce Robertson and his Stirling counterpart David Cameron spoke out strongly in defence of ACfE. Robertson called for "inspirational leadership" and said that this was the time for "risk takers and dreamers". Cameron suggested Keir Bloomer, who has been critical of the implementation of ACfE (see previous page), should be welcomed into the implementation partnership as a critical friend. I couldn't agree more.

But as well as risk takers and dreamers, what we need are pragmatists who know how to help teachers work together to put the ACfE dream into practice in the real world of schools - and especially secondaries.

Why am I picking on them? Because, since 2006, we have run courses across Scotland on ACfE with over 8,000 teachers, primary and secondary. The good news is that these have been very well-received in both as these two comments show: "Right now I feel excited about the new curriculum and the opportunities it offers - much more than before" (primary), and "I feel positive about the possibilities of this being made to work and I want to get on with it." (secondary)

The not-so-good news is that we have been asked to work on ACfE with more primary than secondary teachers. And, on the courses undertaken in secondaries, the comments, though mainly positive, are more guarded and less optimistic, as this comment exemplifies: "What I fear is the entrenched territorial attitudes of subject teachers."

This is why, to realise the dream of ACfE in secondaries, we badly need people with their feet on the ground who recognise that schools run on four things - exams, time-tables, departments and subjects, and that these will continue to be important in the future. These people need to work with staff to explore how to timetable ACfE, what the mix will be between inter-disciplinary working and subjects and other practical issues.

One thing on which I take issue with Robertson is his comment - "ACfE is not optional". As one of my colleagues put it: "The curriculum is not optional, but excellence is."

I would go further and suggest that the curriculum too is optional - if you think of "curriculum" as more than a ring binder of prescribed outcomes and experiences. Instead, think of "curriculum" as the kind of daily interactions that need to take place in classrooms throughout Scotland if young people are to develop the four capacities.

These are the changes that matter, and cannot be forced. And these are changes that require a different approach to teachers' professional development.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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