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MSPs choose their subjects

A Liberal Democrat suggestion that the start of school should be postponed until the age of six and a Tory rethink on "a set national curriculum" were among the ideas to emerge out of a parliamentary debate last week on the progress report from the curriculum review.

The debate was also characterised by special pleading for the retention of particular subjects in the new curriculum.

In his introductory speech, Peter Peacock, Education Minister, repeated previous assurances that subjects would always play their part in the curriculum, adding "history teachers please note" - a reference to the controversy sparked by his comment at The TES Scotland education conversations meeting in Inverness last October that subjects like history might not be taught in traditional ways in the future.

Mr Peacock told MSPs: "I fully expect that, in future, we will have the current range of subjects in schools, although the contribution that subjects make to schools' purposes needs to adapt with the changing times and challenges."

Subjects would have to take their place alongside inter-disciplinary projects and opportunities for personal achievement.

The minister said, however, that "subjects are about not only the subject"

but also a mechanism for helping develop the "four capacities" set out in A Curriculum for Excellence. These aim to turn out pupils who are successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors to society and responsible citizens.

Margo MacDonald, Independent list MSP for the Lothians and a former PE teacher, made a special plea for the retention of specialist subject teachers on the grounds that "a teacher who knows that they are on top of their subject is a confident teacher and a confident teacher is more likely to be able to deal with the biggest problem in the profession at the moment, which is the poor discipline that is evident in too many classrooms and takes up far too much teaching time".

Ms MacDonald said that specialists "are usually inspired by their specialism and can, in turn, inspire pupils".

Her colleagues did not disappoint her if she was waiting for them to stake their own claims for particular subjects: modern languages and science - Fiona Hyslop, SNP; modern languages - Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Tory; history - Stewart Maxwell, SNP; citizenship - Bill Butler, Labour; outdoor education - Robin Harper, Green; science - Brian Adam, SNP; sport - Frank McAveety, Labour; literacy and scientific literacy - Elaine Murray, Labour; science, history and modern languages - Murdo Fraser, Tory.

While Mr Fraser put in his bids, he also criticised those MSPs who called for specific subjects to be strengthened and then stood up to ask ministers what they were going to do about the crowded curriculum. He called for "a joined-up approach".

Despite the record of his own party in government, which established the national curriculum in England and Wales and introduced the centralised 5-14 "guidelines", Mr Fraser made it clear this was no longer the Tory way, at least in Scotland.

"We should encourage schools to develop their own approaches," he said. "We should not have a set national curriculum and I do not agree with those who say that ministers should decide centrally how schools should order their curricula."

There was general support from MSPs for the direction the curriculum review is taking, particularly the need for assessment to serve what is taught and not the other way round, the importance of achievement to complement attainment and the holistic approach of developing a 3-18 curriculum.

Iain Smith, the Liberal Democrat MSP who chairs the Scottish Parliament's education committee, said that he would go further than the curriculum review's report and keep pupils in nursery education for another year, which would mean less formal teaching at the age of five.

This echoes the view of Maggi Allan, chair of the programme board for the review, who told The TES Scotland last week that she would also envisage what is now the P1 stage becoming more like pre-school.

There was also support for schools to be given more flexibility over what they taught, although Mr Fraser cautioned that this had to be balanced with accountability. "Most parents want assurances that their children are learning core subjects in a formal manner that will stand them in good stead in later life," he said.

"However, we recognise that, within that, schools should have flexibility."

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