Anomalies must be ironed out of Curriculum for Excellence

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
The Government needs to take stock and review key concepts

I spent two days recently with a group of heads, deputes and principal teachers, discussing Curriculum for Excellence - all professionals committed to making CfE work as a relevant, engaging curriculum. Their doubts and concerns were real.

Some issues simply require clarification from the Scottish Government. Of course assessment should be formative, but summative assessment is still essential. Assessment needs to be proportionate and serve the curriculum, rather than dominate it. The aim should be improved curricular content and high-quality learning and teaching.

There are significant hurdles to be overcome in terms of parental understanding of reporting. "Developing", "consolidating" and "secure" are a model to support teachers, not obligatory terms for reporting, and for many parents they are meaningless. A few local authorities need to think through that one. Reporting needs to be precise and understandable, not wrapped in jargon.

But there are bigger issues. The quality of the "experiences and outcomes" varies. These should be seen as a work in progress, not definitive. Some are of dubious intellectual substance. Many, in terms of Levels 3 and 4, are poorly differentiated and insufficiently precise to facilitate valid assessment of progress.

Autonomy for schools to fine-tune CfE to suit their needs is a good principle, but there is a hotch-potch of patterns. Some schools will skip National 4 for most students, in some cases in pursuit of two-year Highers. Others, especially those with larger numbers leaving at the end of S4, will emphasise Access and National 4 courses.

Schools in middle-class catchment areas, fearing loss of numbers to the private sector, will look at private schools' presentation patterns and mirror these.

There is also an issue with parental views on curricular content. For many success-driven parents, and perhaps for the most articulate parents, the big concern is exam passes. If breadth of curriculum in S1-3 is seen as lax preparation for exam success in S4-6, many parents will demand increasing specialisation in the early stages. Schools are commanded to listen and respond to the parental voice.

That will create further differentiation in the curricula offered in different schools and undermine breadth, risking an unintended return to senior and junior secondaries, based on the social composition of catchments.

Experiences and outcomes need tightening. If we want to keep a comprehensive system, expectations of breadth in S1-3 and of curricular models in S4-6 need to be more prescriptive. The last thing teachers need is a raft of options, a plethora of papers or freedom to respond to local demand. They require clarity. It's time for the Scottish Government to take stock, review progress and iron out a few anomalies.

Alex Wood, a former headteacher, works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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