Brave clean sweep for the modern age

18th November 2005 at 00:00
It does, I admit, take a leap of the imagination to think of what Argyll has in common with Queensland, Australia: a beautiful coastline, a tropical climate, at least in terms of rainfall, miles and miles of ... not very much and a lot of sheep.

What it does not have in common is its education system.

Nevertheless we found ourselves invited to consider the parallels recently at our biannual Argyll and Bute headteachers' conference.

Australia's federal system allows its states a great deal of autonomy in education. Queensland, in a quest to raise attainment, took the brave and radical route of stepping back and thinking through what the needs of students are to equip them for all that the future could throw at them.

This type of approach looks at the end point and works back. It's not rocket science but is rare in educational thinking in this country.

The results of Queensland's radical rethink without the constraints of existing exam systems were interesting: a body of essential knowledge and a skill set incorporating the "old" basics and "new" basics (the skills, knowledge and dispositions for the 21st century) assessed through completion of a set of "rich tasks".

External exams, with all that goes with them, went out of the window along with the "delivered" curriculum. In their place, teachers and students work co-operatively on varied sets of tasks, highly relevant to the modern world, with subject disciplines linked in realistic ways.

Learning and teaching in Queensland schools will often seem like that in the traditional classroom in Scotland, with formal lessons going on, but it will as often be in groups, in or out of school, as pupils work towards completion of their rich tasks.

Such a radical approach and its workings are very difficult for us to envisage but are certainly worth a closer look. The system has been rigorously evaluated, both internally and externally, and the results are highly positive.

Scotland's national priorities are a nod in the direction of the wider role and purpose of education in the new millennium but we do struggle within the confines of the secondary sector to embed the experiences and new learning for all our pupils.

Our curriculum often dictates that enriching experiences, for example in enterprise, are bolted on and the linking of knowledge within a realistic context - which is a strong feature of the Queensland experience - is absent for us.

Back to reality, now, and our present curriculum and examination system, warts and all (thinking of that particular carbuncle, second year). We are in a position to see the first results of the S3 cohorts to sit Standard grade in the brave frontier schools, so Hub and I went off to Moray to visit Keith Grammar recently.

The school had undergone an inspection in September and interestingly HM Inpectorate of Education would not compare the S3 results with S4. The comparisons will be made when the S3s complete S4 (by which time they will be well ahead of where they would have been under the "old" system).

However, HMIE did remark on the fact that the S2 cohort was "very focused".

Overall, the school and parents are very positive about the outcomes of this brave step. Although there are issues for a few departments and timetabling nightmares for the transition period, the introduction of Standard grade at an earlier stage is worth serious consideration, it seems. Like the Queensland project, Keith Grammar's has been thoroughly evaluated.

In North Lanarkshire, Dalziel High's experience is similar.

However, while tinkering about with Standard grade may help S2 pupils, it will not solve the dilemma facing our education system: how to reconcile the demands of an academic, externally assessed curriculum with the need to equip young people with the necessary skills and dispositions they now require.

If we stick with our present curriculum and exam system (and there is so much to commend them), we really have to look at our method of delivery and consider radical approaches to this.

There is a lot to learn from the Queensland experience and it may be that there are elements which we could incorporate into our system.

In the meantime, I'm packing some summer clothes, smiling very sweetly at our head of service and attempting to convince him that we need to take a closer look at the project ... in person, of course.

Linda Kirkwood is headteacher of Oban HighIf you have any comments, email

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