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New curriculum is like a Polo Mint

The main page of the Curriculum for Excellence website includes the strong claim that it aims to achieve "a transformation in education in Scotland".

This begs the question of whether or not it will indeed lead to wholesale and fundamental changes. Or, as the recent history of worldwide curricular reforms suggests, will we witness small-scale and superficial changes to practice, with a corresponding shift in the lexicon of schooling? No doubt, time will tell.

I am in favour of the general directions set within the 2004 A Curriculum for Excellence paper, especially calls for greater professional autonomy for teachers and a move away from an overcrowded, content-focused curriculum. I am excited about the innovative approaches being developed in some schools, despite the systemic problems - for example, a lack of time and resources, the attainment agenda - which make innovation difficult.

However, I am anxious about the direction in which the curriculum is being taken in many schools. My concerns lie in three main areas, especially in respect of secondary schools. First, there is a general lack of direction and vision. Potentially, the four capacities provide clear statements of purpose, but there has not been a great deal of engagement about how these link to the wider question of "what are schools for?". ACfE is part process curriculum (the broad purposes represented by the four capacities) and part mastery curriculum (content expressed as outcomes). Arguably, these two models are in tension with one another.

Faced with simultaneous and contradictory starting points, the easiest and most common approach is to start with an audit of outcomes and experiences, comparing existing practice with the new prescriptions. This enables decisions to be made about what needs to be "tweaked" to meet the new requirements. Add to this some tokenistic active learning (Assessment is for Learning and rich tasks), and we have a recipe for business as usual.

This is a bleak view of the future of ACfE, but one that is highly likely in many schools - a tick-the-box approach which will result only in changes in terminology, while classroom practices continue pretty much in their present form.

A second concern is a lack of attention to matters of knowledge. ACfE could be characterised a Polo Mint curriculum, with a retention of the framework provided by subjects, but a hollowing out of the substantive content. This seems to be leading to the development of some quite dangerous fallacies. There is a view developing that skills are more important than content, and that content should reflect the desires (as opposed to the needs) of the pupils. Potentially, important knowledge is being excised because it is seen as boring, leading to gaps in the knowledge that young people need to become successful learners, responsible citizens, and so on.

There also seems to be a tendency to conflate knowledge itself with transmission teaching methods. In some cases, decisions about content seem to be driven by the attainment agenda, taking advantage of the "flexibility" offered by ACfE; low-performing departments are literally being abolished (for example, the disappearance of Standard grade subjects like geography, German and business studies in some schools).

Third, and linked to this, is the question of method. Active learning is promoted but, as ACfE is not specific about what this might be, there is confusion about the term. Active learning is being widely conflated with kinaesthetic learning, and many teachers are rightly sceptical. Teacher- led approaches and worksheets have been denigrated. Where specific approaches to active learning have been promoted, in the sense of learning that actively engages the mind (for example, cooperative learning), the potential for confusion is less. However, the whole issue generally requires more conceptual clarity.

In response to such developments, I make a plea for the four capacities to be treated in the aspirational spirit of the 2004 document. They provide a starting point for dialogue about curricular purposes and values. From this, it is possible to derive content (including skills development programmes) and methods that are fit for purpose - to foster the development of the four capacities.

From such a starting point, school communities should be asking questions about what sort of content is necessary to develop these capacities. By linking content to purposes, it is possible to include knowledge and skills that are traditionally not considered in schools, for example, the development of information literacy.

Furthermore, such an approach allows us to pose questions about method. Defining active learning and developing strategies for this are logical next steps. So is a reflective evaluation of barriers to innovation that exist within the school. In many secondaries the timetable is an immutable starting point for the development of ACfE, or is simply not questioned; and yet, pedagogies that are active are often difficult to establish when lessons are only 50 minutes in length.

This also raises questions about whether the current organisation of the secondary timetable into discrete subjects should be the default starting position. One might decide, for example, to defragment the curriculum for S1-3 (establishing subjects like integrated science and social studies). Such change might include developing an underpinning philosophy for this school stage, based around an educational rather than attainment-driven agenda.

Of course taking a school, especially a secondary, in such a direction requires boldness and a purposeful vision, a desire to think afresh and to innovate, and experiment. But isn't this what A Curriculum for Excellence is about? Let's not waste this chance to deal with tomorrow's challenges by thinking only in terms of yesterday's answers.

Mark Priestley is senior lecturer in education at Stirling University and editor of the `Scottish Educational Review'.

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