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Going from Gormenghast to shanty town

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In the first two articles in this series, I welcomed the aspiration of the proposals contained in current consultations on Building the Curriculum 3 and the next generation of National Qualifications, which aim to replace the inelegant Gormenghast secondary school curriculum but which also present a number of difficulties that I outlined.

In this final article, I explore in depth one area of concern: the underachievement of a substantial minority of our young people. The recent OECD report on Scottish schools identified two major challenges: "children from poorer communities and low socio-economic status homes are more likely than others to under-achieve", and we need "socially broader and more successful participation in secondary education" to reduce the number of young people leaving school with minimal qualifications.

While HMIE already identified these challenges in their succinct progress report, Improving Scottish Education, their main recommendation for improvement is a myopic focus on the relative quality of professional practice in different schools. The OECD, in line with most international research, explains that "little of the variation in student achievement in Scotland is associated with the ways in which schools differ. Most of it is connected with how children differ."

The OECD recommendations which follow this analysis are based on a wider understanding of the context of curriculum design and delivery. Specific recommendations address the main challenge for the 14-18 age group - "sequences of study (should) be developed spanning the compulsory and post-compulsory years"; "each local authority (should) establish a curriculum planning and pathways network which links schools, colleges and employer groups."

The response of BTC3 and NQ to this clear vision of supported progression for those most at risk is weak, a bit like the inadequate prescriptions of HMIE which are based on an unarticulated assumption that schools are responsible for and capable of creating these kinds of pathways, no matter what the context or circumstances.

It would be a failure of national leadership to set out the vision then leave it up to schools to make it happen, or to expect authorities, with their significantly different capacities to support innovation, to co- ordinate and plan such change without providing the national structures to support progression. Worthy aspirations need to be backed up with realistic plans. These proposals are too weak to be made to work, and place too much responsibility on schools.

If this is the highest priority for our education system, and both the OECD report and HMIE suggest it is, the Scottish Government must take the lead. We don't want those most at risk to go from the confusions of the Gormenghast curriculum to a ramshackle 14-18 shanty town, built from whatever is lying around in their local area.

I call on the Scottish Government to show the leadership it encourages in others to implement fully the recommendations of the report in this area, and to use its powers to ensure equal access to supported pathways from school to post-school destinations in every part of the country. Strong leadership would go a long way to convince the profession that there is a commitment nationally to turn the vision into reality.

Danny Murphy is headteacher of Lornshill Academy, Alloa.

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