Last term Jack McConnell called for more flexibility and diversity in the curriculum for secondary pupils, allowing greater choice to suit different talents. One school has already set off in pursuit of this, starting with condensing the final 5-14 years. Raymond Ross reports.
At the national "Diversity Makes a Difference" conference in November, Scotland's First Minister called for a flexible curriculum to raise achievement and meet the needs of all pupils. It would provide links with higher education institutions and offer vocational courses for non-academic pupils in school.
The proposal, which could become reality within a decade, presents huge challenges to all secondary schools in terms of planning, resourcing, staffing and delivery.
One school which started off down this road three years ago is Keith Grammar, a 520-pupil secondary in Moray. It was awarded pound;174,000 from the Scottish Executive's Future Learning and Teaching fund to develop its senior curriculum and pound;17,000 to restructure its 5-14 courses.
Its pupils now make their course choices at the end of S1 and all follow Standard grade courses in S2 and S3. After sitting the exams they will (from 2005) follow Higher andor vocational courses in S4-S5, with some academic pupils taking first year university courses or the equivalent in S6.
The new senior curriculum will also involve mini-enterprise courses and interest options such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. The bulk of these courses, it is hoped, will be delivered at Keith Grammar with partnership input from local further education colleges and businesses as well as Aberdeen and Robert Gordon universities.
The speed and efficacy of delivery will partly depend on whether Moray Council opts later this month for public-private partnerships, which could greatly enhance the school's facilities in the short term. However, Keith Grammar is already committed to rolling out its flexible curriculum.
It has adapted the 5-14 curriculum for S1 and the early stages of Standard grade courses, so that the first cohort of S2 pupils were ready to embark on the Standard grade curriculum at the beginning of this session. The new senior curriculum is still in the planning stages.
The local authority and the local community have been very supportive, says headteacher John Aitken. "We have consulted with other local authorities and schools, with primary and secondary parents, universities, colleges and local employers. It was a big drive to consult and inform, but it was vital to do it."
While other schools - "even from the central belt" - are making their way to Keith Grammar to observe and consult, the senior management team is keen to play down any idea that they are at the cutting edge in developing the flexible curriculum. They believe they are just getting on with their job in their own way and that having embarked on this course before Jack McConnell's declaration is simply fortuitous.
Keith Grammar's new S1 course, which completes the 5-14 work, started running in August 2002. The initial challenge in preparing it was more sophisticated than simply concertinaing the final two years of 5-14, says headteacher John Aitken.
"There was some dropping of content but more of an increase in the pace of learning, more joint working between departments and more focus on strands and skills to prevent overlap," he says. "It was a year's effort to rework and restructure this alone."
Depute headteacher Brenda Gifford, who is head of S1-S2, says their aim is to prepare pupils for Standard grade "as effectively as possible without overlap, repetition or demotivation", all things which were apparent by S2.
"I went through the 5-14 structure in each subject and produced audit sheets looking at S1 and S2 separately, in order to identify priorities," she says. "Departments looked at their own subjects and cross-curricular areas. We also audited P7 classes to look at the transition.
"I extracted strands from every subject and then looked at cross-curricular areas, such as health and information and communications technology. It is possible, for example, to cover similar skills in home economics and science.
"We had to ensure that all skills and strands were covered effectively somewhere in the curriculum. We also had to identify what kind of assessment was necessary and when it should be done, so that all departments were not assessing at the same time."
"It enabled us, for example, to come up with a cohesive ICT programme and ensure that ICT was delivered in every subject, while ICT staff could also set up a database catering for the needs of every department," says Mrs Gifford.
Homework became integral to the 5-14 work - "not an add-on or ad hoc" - and each department now returns audit sheets at the end of each unit or term, as appropriate, to enhance departmental self-evaluation. "What the results show after one year," says Mrs Gifford, "is that behaviour has improved and the pace of learning has increased alongside the greater level of challenge.
"Staff have greater expectations and pupils are responding positively to this. The quality of the courses is better and staff are more enthusiastic."
Another spin-off from the new S1 curriculum has been closer ties between Keith Grammar and its associated primary schools. A linked science project has seen secondary specialists going into the primaries and primary pupils using the science laboratories at Keith Grammar. The whole thing took a great deal of preparation and consultation with staff, schools and parents.
While auditing the 5-14 curriculum, each department also audited their Standard grade courses and decided what needed to be changed for the new S2 curriculum that started this session. Some departments, such as chemistry, physics and technical studies, saw major changes, others (English, modern languages and biology) moderate changes and some (maths, modern studies and education) minor.
As this is its first year in operation, the school is in the strange position of having its S2 and S3 pupils beginning Standard grade studies at the same time. They are taught in separate year groups mostly, though there are some composite classes because of demand for the courses or to allow more pupils to study their choices.
"We have no figures yet," says Mrs Gifford, "but where S2 and S3 pupils are together, the S2s are keeping up really well. We have no problems at all reported from any S2 classes, though I have to say this is a good S2 year group.
"I'm happy with the support we've put in for those S1-S2 pupils who would have needed it anyway and I am hopeful we have hit the right balance between stretching the pupils and supporting them," she says.
The new senior curriculum project will begin in 2005 for all S4-S6 pupils at Keith Grammar. It will allow the school to extend "enormously" the range of opportunities it can offer, says Mr Aitken. These will include first year university courses, though he cannot confirm any details yet.
"Nationally, the senior curriculum has not moved on yet, in spite of huge stay-on rates in schools. We have to address this and we want all, or as many courses as possible, including vocational ones, to be undertaken in school, unless the request is unusual or we don't have a cohort," he says.
One issue which will have to be addressed nationally, he points out, concerns lecturers who are not registered with the General Teaching Council for Scotland for teaching in schools. But as some school pupils have started attending further education colleges, staff at Keith Grammar believe a precedent has already been set.
The school is not holding back for PPP status to be conferred. Staff are exploring accommodation, resources and training providers in the community, says depute head Alison Harper. "This is a route we will have to go down anyway, even if we get PPP monies, because new accommodation will not spring up overnight," she says.
Mrs Harper and her colleague Margaret Farrell have been seconded for two years to get the curriculum project up and running. As guidance teachers, they have wide experience in organising work and course placements for senior pupils and see the new curriculum as providing an overall vision and structure for all pupils, especially in the coming years as the school develops individual learning plans.
They estimate that up to 20 per cent of senior pupils will opt for vocational courses, in subjects such as hairdressing and beauty, hospitality and tourism, construction and automative engineering, all of which they hope to offer at the school.
"It is a lot for one school but we're hopeful we can cater for all by 2005 and make education meaningful for every student," says Mrs Harper.
"We have a cohort of S4s already taking Construction Industry Training Board vocational pathways at Moray College, where S3s from other schools are on pilot projects taken by non-GTC registered lecturers. The precedent is there and there shouldn't be a GTC problem," she says.
"We are also looking at various ways in which components of higher education can be delivered in school, which could lead to exemptions from first year university courses, meaning access at second year," says Mrs Farrell.
"We could send pupils to Aberdeen or Robert Gordon University or university lecturers could come here. A mix of staff is also possible, as is e-learning. We are exploring all possibilities at the moment but can make no definite statement beyond saying there has been a positive response to our initial approaches."
The school is looking to put extra enrichment into the senior curriculum by offering study skill courses and interest courses by developing, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme. It is looking at mini enterprise courses too, to develop students' confidence and skills, and exploring options with local businesses and organisations such as Moray Badenoch Strathspey Enterprise, Careers Scotland, United Keith (a local business group) and the Rotary Club.
"The senior curriculum is very much a community project," says Mrs Farrell.
"We are a small rural school with a tradition of community involvement that we want to build on.
"This is all about a curriculum for the 21st century, to give experiences and opportunities young people need to start them off in work and life."
"We're allowing more and better choices for pupils," she says.
"Up until last year, pupils made choices at S2. At university selection time, some began to realise they were missing an element in their portfolio. By doing it the new way, we hope to patch in better.
"In S1 pupils can choose to concentrate on what they are good at or enjoy and then think more about career choices at S3 when they sit their Standard grades. They will be more mature and more motivated and career needs can be patched in in S4. Having the three years in senior school also gives them a better run at Highers and more time.
"It's exciting to work on," Mrs Farrell adds. "It's going to offer a whole new world to the pupils.
"I do panic sometimes. We are going softly, softly. We must. We don't want to promise anything without cast iron guarantees and that's what the senior curriculum project is now trying to construct.
"All schools will have to decide what is the best way for them but we are pleased to have got this underway before Mr McConnell pushed the button."