THE Education Minister wants to "free" teachers to give them more professional discretion over their work in the classroom.
Jack McConnell, fresh from presiding over this year's exams triumph, believes schools have more flexibility in delivering the curriculum than they imagine. There have, however, been growing chalkface complaints that teachers feel constrained by the "compliance culture" in which HMI expects schools to implement national guidelines to the letter.
In a special back-to-school article in this week's TES Scotland (Platform, page 11), Mr McConnell writes: "I want professionals in our schools to have the freedom and support to use their judgment to deliver a rewarding learning experience to pupils, free from the real and perceived constraints in the system."
His department issued guidance to education authorities yesterday (Thursday) urging them to "review current approaches to flexibility and innovation". This makes good one of the recommendations of the discipline task group, which Mr McConnell chaired. Its report in June said the Executive should ensure the curriculum was adapted to meet the needs of all pupils, particularly those "who experience boredom and lack of inspiration in school".
Many schools are already embarking on reforms, such as offering pupils vocational and other alternatives to the conventional Standard grade course of eight subjects. These are aimed largely at pupils who are turned off school but Mr McConnell makes it clear he intends greater flexibility for gifted pupils as well, allowing them to concentrate on their best subjects.
The circular has also given the green light to schools to introduce the new Higher Still National Qualifications into third and fourth years, which will cast further uncertainty over the future of Standard grade as a certificated course for all 16-year-olds.
The Scottish Executive has set up a "new educational developments division", staffed by high-flying civil servants, which will drive forward a series of initiatives. Mr McConnell is to launch pilot projects this year designed to develop "innovative learning and teaching".
Imaginative use of information and communications technology will be at the heart of these moves, which were foreshadowed in the Executive's Digital Scotland report.
Although there is a general welcome for Mr McConnell's flexible approach, the unions are wary of anything which smacks of a curriculum divided into vocational and academic tiers. George MacBride, education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said there had been a considerable move by HMI away from rigid adherence to national guidelines, and the circular would help counter any lingering perceptions that this was not so.
But Mr MacBride warned that the EIS would keep a close watch on how new curriculum plans evolve to counter any impression that two-stream education might be emerging. He was already worried at the publicity surrounding Glasgow's plans which suggested pupils were being offered job training as an alternative curriculum, whereas this was simply one option out of eight Standard grade subjects.
None the less the inclusiveness agenda, the Higher Still approach to vocational and academic education and new community schools should help resist any temptation towards curriculum divisiveness, Mr MacBride believes.
John Mulgrew, president of the Association of Directors of Education, also welcomed the circular.
Mike Baughan, chief executive of Learning and Teaching Scotland, supported an "outcome-related curriculum", but said the next stage was to have a national debate about "what pupils learn, how they should learn and the circumstances in which learning takes place".
Leader, page 12