New curriculum's promises held back by exam fixation

Researchers find that accountability is undermining classroom freedom

The burden of making Curriculum for Excellence happen is falling too heavily on teachers, suggest researchers at Stirling University.

While teachers are supposed to embrace a less prescriptive way of working, they still expect to be judged on exam results. Fundamental change is being demanded of them without the necessary transformation in structures and culture.

At a seminar at Grangemouth High this week, Stirling University's Gert Biesta explored the concept of "teacher agency" - the idea of teachers directing their own actions, rather than working toward a rigid set of outcomes dictated from above.

He and his colleagues Sarah Robinson and Mark Priestley are working with six experienced teachers in one primary and two secondaries to explore their experiences in detail.

The Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change Project, which started in March and will run until May 2012, is bringing to light a "tensionclash between CfE `talk' and continued focus on accountability and measurement", said Professor Biesta.

Scotland's promotion of teacher agency was part of an international trend, he said, but the CfE ideal of greater agency seemed "limited by existing practices and structures".

Glasgow University professor of education Ian Menter also highlighted the "huge paradox" that teachers' experience of Curriculum for Excellence could be one of "decreasing agency".

Professor Biesta fears Scotland may not make the most of teachers' enthusiasm for change, if they feel the bottom line remains unchanged.

The retention of information for exams was "a very tiny part of what education should be for", but there was a danger of teachers taking the attitude that "this is the system that's in place and it's the only one we're judged by, so why should we be agents of change?"

An "audit culture" was largely accepted as an inevitable reality that "hinders, rather than promotes, agency", he said. And while the teachers in the project were enthusiastic about the liberation promised by the new curriculum, they seemed unsure about how to make the most of it.

Promoting teacher agency requires work at three levels, Professor Biesta said:

- personalprofessional capacities;

- culture and practice;

- structure.

But in Scotland the emphasis was on the first.

He questioned the sense in having a discourse about professional development that puts "all the burden on teachers".

Like the audit culture, inspection regimes and league tables could also bog down teacher agency, he argued. Although Scotland did not focus on internal exam league tables like other countries, there was still a preoccupation with international comparisons such as Pisa.

Measuring quality became an end in itself, shifting emphasis "from what schools can do for their students to what students can do for schools".

The findings: teachers' views

"Abigail", a maths teacher with at least 10 years' experience

"If you just saw the results published in the paper, it makes the school sound like a not very good school, but it doesn't feel like that to me when I come here every day. I think we are a good school and that the pupils are well-behaved and that there is a lot more to it than the exam results. But the exam results are what we are ultimately judged on."

"Judith", a primary classroom teacher with six years' experience

"The (formative) assessment part is very new. Are we doing it right? Is it OK to use a lot of teacher judgment or are they still wanting to see the evidence? What kind of evidence have we got? There has not really been a thing on `this is how you do it'. Every authority and even every school has been left to devise their own method of assessment."

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