No room for politics in the Scottish curriculum

Willis Pickard

Despite problems of workload, Scots teachers may be better off than those south of the border, says Willis Pickard. When Richard Pietrasik left his deputy headship in London to become headteacher of Deans Community High School in Livingston, West Lothian, he was told by staff that morale in Scotland was low because of workload and changes to the curriculum.

"I assured them that things were much worse south of the border but they thought I was only trying to jolly them along," he recalls. Three years later he still has a "sense of relief" that he is working in Scotland. "Nothing that has happened by way of changes to the national curriculum makes me think that it would be an improvement on what we have here."

The fundamental difference between the two education systems, Mr Pietrasik believes, is that Scottish teachers have retained a role in curriculum development. They have not surrendered professional autonomy. "The introduction of Standard grade (the equivalent of GCSE) was with teachers' involvement, " Mr Pietrasik explains. And the 5-14 programme has been "carefully developed".

Mr Pietrasik regales his staff with tales of continuing disillusionment down south. He tells of the secondary school where history staff heard that the latest version of the national curriculum syllabus would cover the Romans. Off they went to bone up, only to discover that the final document ignored the Romans altogether. "That could not happen in Scotland," he says, "because there is always consultation."

He is unusual in having worked in England and Scotland. Most Scottish teachers have been educated north of the border, trained in a Scottish college and have worked only in the Scottish system. Their knowledge of the national curriculum is anecdotal because there is little contact between the English and Scottish systems.

According to Cameron Harrison, chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, teachers' perceptions looking south of the border are based on the troubled first years of the national curriculum. "It appeared to be governed by order, counter-order and disorder," he explains.

The Scottish CCC is the Secretary of State's principal source of advice on the curriculum, and it also supervises and supports development of courses and materials, for example, for the 5-14 programme. Mr Harrison says that in Scotland there would not have been an expectation that "everything could be right first time, that a new curriculum could be definitive".

Mr Harrison has studied the national curriculum in depth and reckons it appears to have bedded down better now. "So if Scottish teachers were asked to look at it in operation they would be more positive than in its first years, " he says.

Despite the improvements, he discerns a continuing political agenda which would not be possible with the Scottish curriculum. True, the Scots' 5-14 programme was an initiative by ministers, but Mr Harrison emphasises "there is no ideology in the guidelines about what happens in the classroom". Analysis of stipulated courses south of the border would not produce similar reassurance, he believes.

Scottish teachers are in two minds when making comparisons with England. They see the benefits of a curriculum based on guidelines rather than the force of statute and recognise the importance of "not having had John Patten around here". But they do not want to be accused of "wha's-like-us" arrogance. And they don't want to give the impression that everything in the northern garden is lovely, because it would undermine their campaign against excessive workload and bureaucracy.

Willis Pickardis editor of The TES Scotland.

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