On a journey of improvement

30th July 2010 at 01:00
I have just finished chairing a meeting of Selmas (the Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society), my last as convener.

Around the table were representatives from a range of organisations, including primary and secondary headteachers, local authority managers, Scotland's Colleges, and university programme directors.

We were clear that we are entering a new phase in Curriculum for Excellence. We wished, with hindsight, that it did not have that misleading name. It is essential that we do not seem to be saying to pupils and parents that we have a kind of new syllabus, an "it" that we shall all "implement" on the first day of the new session. In fact, we are talking about a substantial period of innovation, suited in each school to the needs of its own learners.

What we need is the simple and clear communication which the Education Secretary has promised in his action plan and streamlined documents. We must speak in ordinary language, intelligible to all. A special jargon has grown up around Curriculum for Excellence, and it has produced far too many words. The great volume of advice has also led to wrong assumptions: specialist subjects will certainly remain, for instance. Essentially, what is happening is a collaborative effort to improve teaching and learning.

The experiences and outcomes are there to assist in thinking and planning. But they are not some sort of document from on high that must be translated immediately into practice, and certainly not into a series of boxes to tick.

Assessment for learning must be balanced with the equally central formal assessment for qualifications which have international currency and provide not only motivation for pupils, but also the essential currency for movement into more advanced courses of learning and into employment. The flexibility in our current qualifications and our excellent Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework has provided a clear but adaptable model for lifelong learning.

Teachers need to engage with the Scottish Qualifications Authority in its plan to develop the next phase of qualifications, building on what has been achieved and works well. As we move forward in our schools, we need the full involvement of our colleges and universities. We have begun to work in much better partnership with colleges in work-based and specialist academic learning. Our universities need to engage fully as our centres of higher learning. Of course, teachers have professional ability and judgment, but they cannot possibly be expected to be abreast of current research in a fast-changing environment.

We need to explore imaginative and low-cost ways for teachers to keep up with advances in knowledge, and for universities to contribute further to the developments in teaching and learning in schools. We also need to look at the senior phase of education and ensure colleges and universities are engaged in the working groups that debate the development of qualifications.

However, as we have planned our improvements nationally and generated advice centrally and locally, we have begun to drown ourselves in documents and guidance. As Susan Rice said at a recent conference, complexity feeds on itself and takes on a life of its own.

Each school is on a journey to improve what it offers pupils and to engage staff in deciding what this should be. For teachers, this is the best model of continuing professional development: working together and learning from many partners. Now, leaders at all levels need to lead.

Judith McClure is the former convener of Selmas.

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