A balance between central direction and freedom is key

9th March 2012 at 00:00
When it comes to Curriculum for Excellence, we should build on our experience and adapt our approach accordingly

I knew I was getting on a bit when inspectors started to look young. That sense of perspective came home to me even more strongly as the debate about Curriculum for Excellence took on a fresh intensity in the past few weeks.

Scotland is undoubtedly at the forefront of a powerful thread of international thinking in relation to what we teach, how we teach, how we assess and, perhaps most challengingly of all, who calls the shots. This is the most ambitious reform agenda I have witnessed in my career. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the process is not proving to be entirely smooth.

There is a pervasive myth that we are switching from tight prescription to vague freedom. In reality, Scotland never went down the road of heavy national prescription and is often cited as a contrast to the statutory national curriculum and national testing approach adopted south of the border and beyond.

CfE is not simply a reaction to over-prescription. Its roots lie in the belief that deep and sustained improvement demands the direct and committed engagement of teachers as co-creators of the curriculum, not simply its implementers or deliverers. The approach is easy to caricature as being too vague. Indeed, it requires a difficult balance to be struck between central direction, freedom and anarchy; a balance which provides sufficient clarity, promotes equity and preserves the binding role of education in a national culture.

CfE may be right in its fundamentals but, of course, that means nothing if the reality fails to match intent. We are breaking new ground and, while sticking to those fundamentals, we must be ready to learn from experience and adapt and adjust the approach accordingly.

Could problems of implementation be solved if teachers were simply provided with materials prepared elsewhere? We have been here before. Standard grade was founded on strong teacher ownership. It was designed to give teachers greater freedom to devise and develop courses. However, initially at least, the profession baulked at the implications of the greater freedom and a major industry was created in developing materials across the country to support implementation. In retrospect, these materials were probably not much more than a rather expensive and cumbersome security blanket, but they did provide a way forward at the time.

My concern about such an approach is more fundamental. The notion that teachers should simply adopt practice invented elsewhere, however "good" it might be, flies in the face of experience. A change strategy which is based primarily on cascading information and spreading good practice is naive in that it ignores the complexities of determining "good practice" and is reductionist in that it reduces teachers to an overly passive and technical role.

I prefer a strategy based on solving "best problems" rather than disseminating "best practice". The process should be collegiate and not based on following prescriptions, or adopting or even adapting packaged materials which have been developed with different assumptions and for a different context. My experience is that Scottish teachers, primary and secondary, will invariably do what is best for the young people in their charge. The challenge is to provide enough early scaffolding to give the profession the confidence and the capacity to innovate.

We seem still to be struggling to come to terms with the concept of a curriculum-led examination system. That is a fundamental principle of CfE and allows a broad range of qualifications to be taken in S4. At school level, qualifications should be the culmination of learning which goes well beyond the period immediately before summative assessment.

The key lies in articulation: 2+2+2 or 3+3 are both gross over- simplifications that suggest unnecessary compartmentalisation of learning. Dedicated two-year examination courses are not an eternal truth. Indeed, they are if anything the exception. The learning undertaken in the earlier years leading to Levels 3 and 4 in CfE must be understood as an integral part of preparation for qualifications, informed by but not circumscribed by SQA specifications.

Building from that base, there is no reason why young people cannot take a broad range of qualifications in S4 as at present and are not simply cramming two years into one. The CfE concept of general education is both liberating, in that schools can engage in work which meets their own children's needs and circumstances, and purposeful, in that it has its own integrity as well as being the building block for qualifications in the senior phase.

We seem to have descended into a passive acceptance that the sole purpose of secondary education is to gain qualifications. Of course qualifications matter - I have championed their importance over a career; but they do not in themselves define education.

It must have been a real challenge for SQA to construct Nationals to be genuinely curriculum-led. Teachers will soon be in a position to get the confirmation they need when the final specifications are published. Thereafter, school education should accord qualifications their proper place - in the senior phase.

All of this is dependent on clarity of thought and of communication, focusing on what matters and exposing myths. It is also dependent on the profession exploiting the freedom to create exciting, relevant and enduring learning for young people, which is the essence of broad general education and the hallmark of the educated Scot.

The immediate task is to ensure that S3 provides the kind of rich and deep learning which will endure in its own right as well as providing the platform for future qualifications.

Graham Donaldson is a former senior chief of HMIE and author of Teaching Scotland's Future.

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