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For subjects, read themes

Elizabeth Buie reports on the second 'education conversation' held by The TESS to mark its 40th anniversary

The prospect of a curriculum based on themes instead of subjects was raised in the second of The TESS series of "education conversations".

Fifteen people engaged with education in widely differing ways met in Dundee to explore the second theme of the Scottish Executive's initiative, Ambitious, Excellent Schools, giving "professional freedom for teachers and schools to tailor learning to the needs of individual young people".

While the discussion touched on issues such as exam flexibility and devolution of school management, the focus was to a large extent on the future shape of the school curriculum in the wake of the Scottish Executive's report, A Curriculum for Excellence.

Gill Robinson, head of the curriculum reform programme in the Scottish Executive Education Department, said that while it wanted to give teachers more professional freedom, there was a need to emphasise the "professional" part of that and to ensure they were exercising that freedom in a way that was well-informed.

In terms of the future curriculum, there would have to be a common understanding of what young people in Scotland experienced in the educational process. There would be some things in the curricular framework that the nation would have to decide as a country and some that would be done at school and teacher level.

Keir Bloomer, chief executive of Clackmannanshire council, pointed out that, on the one hand, the Executive was acting prescriptively by dictating that there would be 53,000 teachers by 200607 while, on the other, giving general encouragement for schools to act more flexibly.

In curricular terms, Mr Bloomer added, it was perhaps time to see lifelong learning differently and question whether everyone had to have the whole package by the time they left school.

It was Tom Conlon, a senior lecturer in ICT and teacher education at Edinburgh university's Moray House school of education, who proposed a curriculum of themes. He said the challenge now was whether the system could move from its current position of "acquisition of knowledge" to giving young people a "capacity to learn".

Dr Conlon found support from Laurie O'Donnell, director of ICT development with Learning and Teaching Scotland, who described just such a development in Queensland, Australia, where pupils follow thematic projects. Pupils might start by doing some maths and learn about how to calculate angles, and then go on to write a report or make a presentation, he said.

Lorna Ferry, education officer with Dundee city council, pointed out that this kind of project-based work was similar to what happens in primary schools.

This was endorsed by Debbie Thom, a teacher at Whitfield primary in Dundee, where she recently won an award for a school project which encompassed enterprise, citizenship, health awareness and several other curricular themes. Notably, the project had succeeded in raising the self-esteem of many of the pupils in an area of socio-economic deprivation.

But the pupils were not so enthusiastic about the advent of a themed curriculum. Becky Ward, school captain of Morgan academy, and Michael Allan, an S6 pupil from the same Dundee secondary, said they also enjoyed specific subjects. Nonetheless, they both highlighted initiatives such as the Duke of Edinburgh awards which they felt were particularly rewarding aspects of their schooling.

This prompted Ewan Aitken, the education spokesperson for Scotland's local authorities, who chaired the event, to muse whether the awards scheme should be the curriculum.

Dr Conlon's view that too much weight was attached to the acquisition of exam certificates also found broad consensus. Alan Mitchell, from the CBI Scotland, said employers wanted "soft skills" from potential employees, such as ambition, creative thinking, communicative abilities and team-working.

Nevertheless, he accepted that there was still a tendency among some employers to use exam grades as an initial method of shortlisting candidates, and that some businesses looked for qualifications in specific areas such as modern languages or sciences.

Two youth workers, Clare McCance and Sarah McEwan, and a young adult, Barry Greig, who is included in their literacy arts project, all called on schools to place greater value on achievement in non-academic areas.

The TESS conversations are held in association with Learning and Teaching Scotland. The remaining three events, with invited participants, will be in October, December and January in Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. A fuller transcript will appear in The TESS during those months.

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