Keep it simple

Tom Bryce is professor of education at Strathclyde University

Assuming that A Curriculum for Excellence really takes off and the educational system adopts its attainment levels, we will look back at the later years of the 20th and the early years of the 21st centuries as a period when more detail and precision in recording pupil learning was thought possible and worthwhile.

The six A-F levels of 5-14 span the nine school years for those ages and, at least on paper, their educational targets have been numerous and detailed, resulting in a "fine grain" that has proved unsustainable.

Whether teachers have absorbed the levels into their thinking about children's progress, it is apparent these formal rungs of the educational ladder do not have the ring of conventional age and stage vocabulary.

Before 5-14, report after report throughout last century used traditional terms such as "nursery and infant", "lower primary", "upper primary" and "early secondary". Their correspondence to ages, actual ages, was evidently the way teachers think of pupils and the curriculum they address.

So, as we look at how the "de-cluttering" of the curriculum is taking shape and targets are being streamlined, we shouldn't be surprised at the ways in which the vocabulary is reverting to trusty terms. ACfE has old-fashioned phrases in its language and the terms are all straightforward.

But, when compared with the national curriculum documentation in England and Wales, it is apparent how closely the ACfE levels correspond to the key stages of our southern neighbours. Scotland's early level compares with the English foundation key stage (ages 3-5); first is KS1 (5-7); second is KS2 (7-11); third is KS3 (11-14); fourth is KS4 (14-16) and senior (16-18) is sixth form.

Is it too harsh to say that the simplification that ACfE carries is a copying of the national curriculum south of the border, an importing of key stages in all but name? Does this represent a step towards commonality across the countries of the UK, despite the proudly held distinctiveness of Scottish education?

Maybe it is inevitable that, if there be a simplification to four levels, you cannot deviate far from tradition and the obvious stages stand out. If so, what does this herald beyond the fourth level? This year was to be the decision year regarding Standard grade (we do have a national mess to sort out, with the wide range of variations among schools regarding Standard grade and Intermediate awards, and all possible combinations and age variations). The latest news seems to be that a consultation process will begin after the May elections.

What is the betting that an Anglicised solution will be detectable behind one of the options? More importantly, since the much vaunted relaxation of the age and stage legislation was responsible for the variations between schools and authorities, it would be nice to see a change of heart. The laissez-faire approach to what qualifications can be sat, and when, has resulted in greater differences between relatively advantaged and relatively disadvantaged schools.

More often than not, Standard grade is dying in the leafier suburbs. With schools tending to their particular circumstances, the bigger picture is a more socially divided Scotland. Perversely perhaps, what has evolved can be read as counter-inclusion.

So, the incoming parliament needs to look for a bold simplification of assessment levels at the upper levels of schooling. Straight-forward, meaningfully manageable stages. We could then all understand each other.

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