A good curriculum needs a child's heart

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Compassion wisdom, justice and integrity must be the guiding principles, says Margaret Doran

The curriculum as we understand it in Scotland - the knowledge and understanding, the skills and the attitudes - is defined in national curriculum guidelines. It is also driven by the expectations of the examination system for national assessments in primaries 3, 5 and 7 and S2 and for national qualifications, and by the expectations of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education and of local authority quality assurance arrangements, which are linked closely to HMIE expectations.

It could be argued that those are givens that do not require significant change. The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland would not support a curriculum review that imposed yet another set of curriculum guidelines.

The curriculum and associated assessment regime have had enough change and require time to bed down and to focus on the quality of the learning and teaching experience. Teachers need to build up confidence in the secondary school curriculum in particular, and they need time to assimilate restructuring as part of the teachers' agreement.

However, a strong argument exists in favour of moving away from rigid adherence to curriculum planning specifications - that is, tick-box regimes of compliance with a curriculum that is defined by outcomes as summative assessment - towards more freedom for classroom leaders to take risks; to be more child-centred and responsive to children's needs; to be more creative and innovative with timetabling in primary and secondary schools; and to be more creative in team teaching and in opportunities to work with other professionals to deliver a curriculum within and outwith the school day.

Teachers need time to develop further their capacity to use formative assessment by gathering evidence from oral, written and practical tasks so that they can provide quality feedback, praise and encouragement for success. They need time to collect meaningful evidence that will secure improvement in learning and teaching and which will allow the development of a range of learning and teaching methodologies to deliver a differentiated experience.

The system never stops developing and change is inevitable. Throughout the change agenda, education authorities have focused on learning and teaching, thinking skills, learning skills, emotional intelligence, embedding core skills and promoting creativity and innovation.

At the same time, the examination system has reinvented itself, through national tests from five to 14 becoming national assessment from five to 14, through Standard grades and Highers becoming national qualifications, and through the introduction of Higher Still.

Quite rightly, there is great emphasis on curriculum flexibility, but there should also be emphasis on curriculum coherence. To ensure that young people make sense of the curriculum, there should be connections between subject, specialism and experiences. Information technology is making a significant contribution in that regard. The virtual schoolbag provides safe opportunities for looked-after children to learn in school, at home, in internet cafes and anywhere else.

When we review the curriculum, we need to reflect on the purposes of schooling. Are we to continue to teach compartmental subjects or do we develop the capacity of every teacher to teach the whole child? How can schools contribute to a set of life skills that will ensure that all young people, now and when they leave school, achieve their full potential?

There is a case for embedding a set of life skills in every classroom in the land and in ensuring that we develop young people's confidence and self-esteem. We need to ensure that they have transferable skills, that they can access knowledge, that they have a positive attitude to themselves and to others and that they have the resilience that will see them through life's challenges.

There is research evidence that teachers in Scotland are faced with a tension between the overall aim of raising average attainment and the targeting of resources and support at children whose attainment levels are of most concern. The research found that teachers had difficulties in countering multiple deprivation in learning and in raising the overall quality of the learning environment.

If our curriculum is to meet the needs of all children - and, indeed, if it is to meet a national and local authority moral imperative to meet the needs of the whole child - there should be designated time and opportunities for teachers to explore their attitudes and values. In Stirling, there is evidence that multi-agency working around the needs of vulnerable children presents many opportunities to explore professional values, especially in relation to the exclusion of young people from mainstream schools, where one service might claim that another service does not understand.

The challenge will be to ensure that the outcome of a curriculum review is based on developing a set of values and principles that can be shared and developed further with other professionals who are also delivering services to children and their families.

Schools do not operate in isolation and traditional concepts of the curriculum have moved on: one size does not fit all. Establishments are not teaching the 30 per cent of the child that was taught in the 1960s and 1970s; they are teaching 100 per cent of the child. We need to take account of the baggage that children take to school and not to focus solely on whether they take their schoolbags home.

A set of values is key to a new approach to whole-child development, but a set of values for the school curriculum cannot be developed by schools alone. It is clear that the values on the Scottish parliamentary mace - compassion, wisdom, justice and integrity - are worthy of consideration as key values for all services for children and the curriculum.

Strong messages cannot be centred on traditional concepts of the school as the sole contributor to children's development; values need to be developed in partnership with others. We should focus on the kind of childhood experiences that young people should have. Young people in Stirling who developed a children's charter said that they wanted their childhood to be safe and that they wanted a good education, good school buildings and good leisure and recreation facilities. They also wanted to have rights, responsibilities, respect, fun and the best time of their lives in all schools.

From the mouths of babes we hear about a vision and a set of values and principles that will influence a curriculum that goes beyond traditional subject barriers and departmentalism, and which is child centred and allows us to put children first in all that we do.

Margaret Doran is head of schools at Stirling Council. This is an edited version of a statement last month to the parliamentary education committee's inquiry on the school curriculum.

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