All change is best for secondaries

11th January 2008 at 00:00
Scottish education is good but flawed. That is the conclusion of the experts from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development who presented their report to the Scottish Government in December.

Only by tackling two long-standing and pervasive flaws can Scotland fully live up to OECD expectations. These can be summarised easily: more secondary teachers need to use a different set of learning and teaching strategies which allow all young people to participate and achieve within a school setting right up to age 17-18.

Two quotations from the experts encapsulate the challenges: "Secondary teaching is too subject-centred and too little focused on the challenges of diversity and inclusiveness"; and shifting lower attainers into further education colleges "creates a risk (of) leaving the academic culture of the school intact".

Evidence to support these changes does not just come from OECD experts. A number of thinkers have been convinced that secondary teaching has been misdirected, while most international comparisons suggest that the best way to deal with attainment as well as employability is within vocational programmes in schools and not (mainly) occupational programmes in colleges.

If the experts' opinions are to be heeded, then young people in secondary schools will have to be offered "classroom activities of the kind they had in primary school".

This is a culture change for many secondary teachers who are being asked to adopt methods with which the majority have had little sympathy in the past, on the grounds that they would have negative effects on exam performance. The experts are, however, convinced that these methods will reach out to all learners and especially to non-traditional groups. That is why they wish to see examinations and assessment also change. Their convinced view is that "manipulating the qualifications structure is not a substitute for developing nationally-accessible programmes of applied learning".

The second flaw creates as many problems. Scotland has responded to educational and economic imperatives through school-college partnerships and in courses such as Skills for Work. But the typical venue for such programmes is the college. Experts say this denies learners equal opportunity and parity of esteem. They want general purpose vocational studies to be open to all learners, particularly the 15-18 age group.

Such a move will fill secondary teachers with horror. Learners they were glad to be rid of, for teaching as well as behaviour reasons, will stay in school! No wonder the OECD report places such an emphasis on changing the way teachers are trained and retrained.

But the biggest challenge faces A Curriculum for Excellence, whose programme of guidance deals with 3-15 year-olds. The assumption is that upper secondary education will remain relatively stable. Not so, says OECD. Scotland can only join the Premier League in education if secondary schools and teachers change their purposes. Who will be brave enough to tell them, when many other indicators demonstrate that they are doing a good job already?

Douglas Weir is emeritus professor of curricular studies at Strathclyde University.

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