Take an expat's word for it - Scotland's CfE is to die for

Its professional freedom and opportunities to engage children must not be derailed by gripes and disagreements

Lynn Gee

I thought I had left Scottish Education behind. Having retired from my headteacher job in Scotland and started a new life in the United States, I thought I had quit the Curriculum for Excellence. It was now no more part of my psyche - banished from my thought process.

And so it was, until on a recent visit home, I happened to turn on the BBC's Newsnight Scotland. There they were - two of our great spokesmen on Scottish Education - Professor Brian Boyd and Professor Lindsey Paterson arguing about what the Curriculum for Excellence is, what it means, what it might be. Still?

They had opposing viewpoints. Lindsay Paterson expressed dismay about Curriculum for Excellence's lack of content and focus and backed up many secondary teachers' concerns that they are being told to implement something that was just a set of skills. How could we relate this to exam passes when universities and employers were looking for some more tangible mark of pupil achievement? Brian Boyd, on the other hand, dismissing this interpretation and proffering his version of the curriculum, argued that there is plenty of reference to content but the focus was on "deeper learning". Still no clarity - even from these two eminent boffins.

I was fascinated. Here we are five years down the line and Brian Boyd and Lindsay Paterson still could not even agree about the basic philosophy of Scotland's new curriculum.

It reminded me of the many seminars and meetings I attended when Curriculum for Excellence was in its infancy. We were told by a succession of worthies from HMIE or Learning and Teaching Scotland (as it then was) that Curriculum for Excellence was indeed excellent. It was up to us, however, how we employed it in our own schools. Nobody would ever give us any practical advice on how to proceed. We were presented with the "four capacities" which, it cannot be denied, are admirable goals for any education system, but just how did we translate these into practice? Nobody really knew what Curriculum for Excellence was.

This created more than a little anxiety for teachers - especially secondary colleagues who were used to a more structured approach deemed necessary to facilitate the exam system. The primary sector was generally not so fazed. They would have welcomed a little more guidance, but basically got on with it.

In my school, we welcomed Curriculum for Excellence. The shackles of 5-14 "coverage" constraints were dropped. We enjoyed the freedom of more active learning styles and really embraced initiatives such as Assessment is for Learning. Pupils were becoming more active partners in their learning. The focus on the teacher as "professional" rather than "technician" was a welcome change and there was an increased confidence to try new ideas. We didn't throw out the old curriculum, but just shifted the emphasis, moved the goalposts, tweaked things. It was exciting and challenging. Curriculum for Excellence seemed to be working for us.

Then the changes started to creep in. We sensed an anxiety from those on high. It was as if they were saying: "Can we really trust schools and teachers to manage the curriculum themselves?"; "How are they going to manage without our expert guidance?"; "Let's intervene before things go too far!"; "Let's get together in working groups and produce some folders full of words and words and more words."; "Let's hang on to our jobs!"

And the outcome? The outcomes. The green folders. Death by outcomes.

Curriculum for Excellence started to drown. What seemed a great idea at its inception was now beginning to throw up some difficulties. The questions then became: "How can we cover all these outcomes?"; "What do they mean?"; "How can we align our maths, language, social studies and health and well-being programmes with all these outcomes?"

Endless meetings took place about this. Teachers were beginning to stress over ambiguous attainment levels and how to report them. How could they explain to parents that Johnny in P7 was at the same "level" as his sister in P5? Can we really judge that a child is a "successful learner" but not so much a "responsible citizen"? "Why are we trying to impose the same methods of summative assessment?"

Anybody's guess.

This is a problem with educational initiatives like Curriculum for Excellence. Someone starts off with a very good idea and then everyone else steps in with their tuppence worth. It seems as if it is necessary to add and add until the originality and freshness disappears. The straitjacket is firmly clamped on. What was initially intended as Curriculum for Excellence starts to get buried alive.

In my brief encounter with the education system in the US, with its over- reliance on tests and grade scores and general stifling of creativity, I would conclude that Curriculum for Excellence is a gift to Scottish education. It is about engaging with children's learning and allows a professional freedom that many American educators would die for. Please don't kill it off with endless gripes and moans and disagreements. Take a look again at what it really stands for. Brian Boyd and Lindsay Paterson, please note.

Lynn Gee was headteacher of New Deer School, Aberdeenshire, until last summer.

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Lynn Gee

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