Can teachers be trusted?

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Teachers have long been constrained by curriculum imperatives and targets. The Scottish Executive's 'Ambitious, Excellent Schools' blueprint addressed this issue, which was the focus of the second of five education conversations being held to mark the 40th anniversary of The TESS

This is an edited transcript of the proceedings held last month in Dundee. It discussed the second theme of 'Ambitious, Excellent Schools': "professional freedom for teachers and schools to tailor learning to the needs of individual young people". We hope these discussion will challenge received wisdom about what should be going on in schools and stimulate fresh thinking.

Neil Munro Editor TESS


Gill Robinson Scottish Executive Education Department

The second section of Ambitious, Excellent Schools is based on the Minister's belief that the people who are best placed to support young people and to make judgments about what might be in their best interests are those who work most closely with them. It's with that in mind that it talks about the importance of professional freedom for teachers and schools to tailor their learning to individual needs.

We know more about how children learn. Some of what we thought was good practice a few years ago, we would now not recognise as such, because we've learnt more about learning. It's therefore important to reflect both on the way that teachers teach and on the things we think that young people should learn and when they should learn it.

The curriculum review group took as a starting point the values in the Scottish parliamentary Mace, extending that into words about how we should be approaching our task, recognising that the curriculum is going to have a profound effect on young people and their life chances in the future.

We want the curriculum to enable all young people to benefit from their education, but also to develop their own values in a way that enables them to take value-based decisions, to understand diverse cultures and to respect others - among many other things.

At the heart of the document, we tried to say what we think the purpose of the curriculum is for all young people aged 3 to 18, to help to promote the development of young people as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. We tried to do it in a way that we hope chimes with young people's own expectations of themselves as well as others.

On professional freedom for teachers, we need to create the space for them to exercise this in a way that would promote these things.

We've also had a look at what we think the principles of the curriculum ought to be, in particular the notion of challenge and enjoyment being a very important part of a young person's experience.

So we have the task of applying these things to the existing curriculum.

For example, what do we mean by "professional freedom" for teachers? It's important to think through the emphasis on the "professional" bit.

It has to be exercised in a way that is well informed. Teachers need to know what makes for good teaching and learning. We need to understand how young people learn and that understanding needs to be used by teachers in helping them think about the best way to teach particular things.

So they need to be able to evaluate what might be good teaching and learning. We need to be able to do that having a full knowledge of the strengths and needs of young people, so that they don't make decisions about what they do that could be damaging to them. That enables them to take decisions and to have freedom to decide how they're going to teach things.

At one end of the scale, teachers will have the freedom within their individual classrooms to decide and to change their plans as appropriate.

At the other end of the scale, do they have the freedom to decide what to teach? Should schools have freedom to decide with a blank sheet of paper what they ought to put in their curriculum?

Clearly the answer has to be No. There has to be some sort of common understanding of what young people in Scotland experience through their educational life. It's right and proper that national decisions are taken about that commonality of the Scottish educational experience, particularly if we think of education as a way of passing on our culture, an understanding of where we come from and our collective future.

That's why the next sentence of the Ambitious, Excellent Schools document says "within a framework of clear national standards and local authority support". In other words, what we have to do is enable teachers to make their decisions within that sphere of professional freedom in clearly understanding what the boundaries are - what things are open for flexibility and decision, and what are the things where it's going to be right to be clear about what a young person might be entitled to experience.

One of the tasks we have with the review is to make that clearer than it is at the moment, and to allow some of the clutter around the guidance that teachers have to fade into the background and be clearer about the purposes.

That's a very quick run through some of the thinking around the curriculum.

Other elements to do with flexibility, exam timing and assessment in particular are part of the same picture.

What are the links that need to be made to ensure that assessment is used in a way that helps successful learning, enables teachers to understand how youngsters are progressing and enables youngsters to understand themselves and how they're progressing?

The exam issue is a live debate again. Decisions always need to be taken in the best interests of young people in a full understanding of the circumstances - and that comes back to professional freedom.


Stephen Shaw Rector of Morgan Academy, Dundee

Teachers will welcome the professional freedom advocated here. There has to be, in terms of the curriculum, some stability and similarity across Scotland but, within the classroom, I think professional freedom will be welcome. Freedom will only come with decluttering. A lot of thought has to be given to that, particularly in S1 to S3.

The assessment is for learning developments and the formative assessment approach (designed to improve pupil performance rather than simply measure it) is very positive. Well-trained professionals should be able to identify the particular needs of youngsters and, within a common framework, find a particular way forward for that individual.

I see behind this document the focus on educating individuals, not treating them all as cohorts.


Lorna Ferry Quality improvement officerDundee City Council education department

This means more conversations between teachers and pupils. They need to take those conversations quite seriously, both in taking responsibility for their learning, talking about the targets that are being set and the outcomes that are expected. So there should never be a time when a young person doesn't know why he or she is doing something or what's next on their schedule.


Keir Bloomer Chief executive Clackmannanshire Council

Now that's fine, but the document invalidates the notion of professional freedom with what follows. We have here the idea of increased professional freedom and accountability, followed by things like "we will have 53,000 teachers".

This emphasis on prescription of input is at variance with the ethos of the document. The confusion of ends and means which that embodies has typified our approach over the years and it's a pity that it still does here. A Curriculum for Excellence offers the possibility of making a major breakthrough in education in Scotland, but it doesn't guarantee that we will take the chance. It is important to take a long-term view and sort out what the relationship is among the various components of this strategy.

We also need to tidy up some of the other bits of the landscape. What's the relationship between the four purposes of A Curriculum for Excellence and the five national priorities? In my view, it's perfectly clear: there is nothing said in the five national priorities which is not said better in A Curriculum for Excellence. The national priorities were a useful lead, but we've got to cast off the baggage that's no longer helping us to move forward. We won't progress unless we clarify our strategic sense of purpose in the light of these documents.


Ann Darlington Assistant director NCH, the children's charity

How does this help those who feel outside the system? There are always young people who are disengaged and, in some of the work that I do, it's that transition from primary to secondary that is the problem.

Often a child who is disadvantaged has a lot of support in primary school, and then they go on into secondary school and the support isn't there, and they fall even further behind. So how is this going to help them?

We have a huge number of young people who get to the end of secondary education and have nothing to go on with into their adult life. They have no qualifications, their literacy and numeracy are poor, employment becomes a real challenge and they often go on to repeat part of this in their families for generations. How do we break that cycle?


Barry Greig, 23

I suppose the question is: what do you think should happen if we've got to change the way we do the curriculum, so we achieve this? What do we need to do so that we know young people are really making progress, especially between primary and secondary


Sarah McEwan 16-24 literacy project, Dundee

Assessment is really important to young people as they go on to secondary school, so that they're clear about what their needs are and how they're going to meet those needs.

For some young people the secondary curriculum, with all its variety, may be very difficult. You don't want to separate young people or say "You can't do these subjects". At the same time, if they haven't got some of the basic skills, how can they possibly cope with learning to speak French or German or whatever? So they need the kind of support that doesn't make them feel excluded.


Clare McCance 16-24 literacy project, Dundee

I speak with personal experience of being the slow learner at the back of the room through being dyslexic. Our emphasis in the project is on learning through the arts but also being valued as an individual learner.

Even with dyslexia, I can be valued as a learner because I'm good at art instead of the emphasis on the big subjects such as English, maths and sciences. Do we need to do those things to feel OK? Some people got an A in English or in maths, but I got an A in art, so why don't people think I'm an A student? I think they need to change the philosophy about what's important to the school and to the individual.


Ann Darlington

But it's also a challenge for teachers. I've got friends who are teachers and they've got that young person in the classroom who may need a huge amount of extra support and whose behaviour might be challenging because they're feeling disengaged and outside the mainstream.

The teachers need support too, in puttting a support plan together. It is individual learning for us as well as the young person.


Lorna Ferry

Ithink that emphasises the need to take into account the child's social and cultural background early on in the primary school. It's a bit late by the time they get into the secondary school, where we do tend to emphasis subject like language and maths. It's not everybody who's good at language and maths. We need to open up the curriculum and we need to let children come and succeed in other areas, such as art and whatever it is they excel in, and they have to be recognised.

Schools all the time are looking for ways of enhancing the confidence of all the pupils in the school. A key thing is the confidence in that kind of dialogue that I was describing about talking with pupils about their learning and giving them ownership of that learning, building up their confidence and schools' confidence too, trying to increase the confidence of pupils by valuing all kinds of different things and not just the measurable things like the language and maths.

The professional freedom bit will give schools an opportunity to look at the relevance of the curriculum, because the same curriculum is not relevant for all pupils. Personal learning planning is a way to go about that, where pupils know the steps they've taken and the next steps they need to take.


Keir Bloomer

I think it would help if we really absorbed the implications of the idea of lifelong learning. Lifelong learning has been accepted as a key concept in a short space of time, because nobody educating a young person in 2005 can possibly anticipate what that young person, still in the work force 50 years from now, will need to know.

We've understood that bit. But another implication of lifelong learning is that you don't have to cram it all into the beginning. We're no longer in the business of making sure that everybody's got the complete package by the earliest stage at which they can leave the system, so we've got to re-conceive what that period of initial education is about. It might be about equipping people to be lifelong learners.

Now the equipping bit requires some of the things that we have always done: it's difficult to be a lifelong learner if you are not literate. But there are actually a comparatively small range of skills of that fundamental and transferable nature that need to be acquired to a high level within the period of initial education.

In the past, we've not put a lot of effort into motivating people to be lifelong learners. If we took that seriously, I think we would be recognising a much wider range of achievement and encouraging people into a much wider range of opportunities.


Tom Conlon Lecturer at Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh

In raising lifelong learning, Keir has made a crucial intervention. A Curriculum for Excellence holds out the prospect of a fundamental shift from a view of schooling which is about the acquisition of knowledge to one which is about the acquisition of capacity to learn, and that seems to me potentially very profound.

At present, however, it's at odds with the number one priority which is attainment, because this has been interpreted by the school inspectors, the Scottish Executive, headteachers, councils and teachers - as being about achieving Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) certificates.

These may or may not equate genuine educational achievement of the rounded type that's referred to in the document. Many of us suspect that what SQA certificates frequently represent is a more shallow achievement, based on the capacity to regurgitate fragments of knowledge and snippets of skill that reflect the syllabus content of SQA courses.

Taking on board the idea of schooling, which is about the development of learning capacity, requires us to make a shift towards deep learning and towards skills that are robust rather than surface learning in skills that are brittle.

The philosophy behind A Curriculum for Excellence could be that Scotland sees schools as being about developing the ability to think, to feel and to act. Not what to think, and what to feel, and how to act, but rather how to think, and to develop a capacity for feeling, and a wisdom to act.

That in turn might lead to a different conception of the curriculum, couched in terms of studying along the lines of themes and problem areas - something much more student-centred and much more focused on readiness and preferences for learning.


Alan Mitchell Head of policy, Confederation of British Industry

I sought out a couple of people this week who were in small businesses and asked them: what do you expect from the education system? None of them talked about wanting more people with Highers in this or that grade. What they wanted were ambition, desire, discipline.

As I read through Ambitious, Excellent Schools, I thought about all the things that the education system is there to bring about - knowledge, skills and ambition. And it struck me that the one we focus on is all about knowledge - knowledge defined in terms of something you can measure, which is an exam or qualification, which we can use for some purpose or other. We need to get away from that.

Gill suggested that we can't give teachers complete freedom in terms of what they teach, but the problem is if it's the soft skills we're interested in, the teamwork, the desire, the drive, all those kind of things, then surely you can actually end up with a system where there are very, very few subjects - so long as whatever you are doing is about bringing out those kind of attributes.

Then that's fine, so perhaps we do need to give teachers more flexibility.

Some employers will have got a specific need for people who can speak foreign languages and there are some businesses who will say they need more people who can do science, but I guess a majority of employers don't define the outputs of education in that sense.


Laurie O'Donnell Learning and Teaching Scotland

We are not alone in discussing this. Pretty much every developed nation is looking at the international agenda. You can see how the globalised economy has started to say: what do we want to do in order to survive?

Picking up Tom's point, the curriculum design at the moment is very traditional. In secondary schools, you will find a hierarchy of subject departments. Language and maths are seen as top in our schools, and down below there will be social subjects: history and geography. Get near the bottom of the pile and you start going into the arts, languages and PE.

If we want a world-class education service for all our young people, it will never be enough to just look at what we have done in the past and try to modernise and update it.

There is some interesting stuff going on in the world now. For example, in Queensland, Australia, they have taken the approach not to have curriculum silos but to develop learning around what they call "rich tasks". Learners still need planned, specialist input in art, music, maths, language, history, science etc. The difference is that the specialist inputs all contribute to achieving the "rich task" and are therefore more meaningful and contextualised. For the learner,the experience should be more motivating, relevant and enjoyable.


Lorna Ferry

That mirrors the primary project work model, in fact takes the primary model through to the next stage. In primary, we are looking very much at the more complex tasks and looking at learning - but learning together. In Dundee we are looking at how we learn. Children, I think for the first time in a long time, know how they learn and are doing more tasks about how they learn so they're not just learning the content.


Stephen Shaw

We're really knocking at an open door here. Schools have been creating enjoyable learning environments for a number of years now, if you think of the kind of schools that are using the Learning Game, the Tree of Knowledge, and all these other things. But we're adding them on to everything else we do. The trick is to integrate all of that into the curriculum, and it takes me back to Ann's initial point: we have children at the margins who are not included.

Glasgow University were being slated recently because they had students coming through with no literacy skills, so we must be careful. We need highly skilled young people who may follow, in some areas, a fairly - I use the word carefully - traditional approach to education. But within the school setting, we require the flexibility for teachers and managers to be able to cater for the needs of everyone, to make lifelong learners and people who enjoy having the skills of learning at their particular levels so that, when they leave, they can re-engage in education at any stage.


Deborah Thom Whitfield Primary, Dundee

Tom pointed out the inter-related nature of a lot of the subjects and a lot of the skills that pupils learn in areas such as citizenship, eg enterprise and health education, and I think teachers need to be looking at, not decluttering the curriculum, but ways of integrating these subjects.

I was recently engaged in a project that won an award at the Focus on Achievement awards in Dundee. It was called "Badges of Responsibility" and involved integrating the areas of citizenship, creativity, enterprise skills and health promotion. It involved the children in learning about life skills to become confident individuals and responsible citizens. They also demonstrated skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, valuing others and developing self-esteem.

It showed the way these skills are interrelated. They don't relate to one fixed subject area, but are transferable from one to the other. A way of decluttering the curriculum would be if teachers can view it, not in isolation, but as part of a bigger picture. Dare I say it, joined-up teaching!


Sarah McEwan

That's very much what we do in our project. We try to engage young people in using creative methods, such as music, art, poetry, drama, motor mechanics, whatever. But the most important thing is that our ideas come from our young people. That takes dialogue. It requires creativity from the teachers and it is more difficult than having a set curriculum - but a lot more fun.


Ann Darlington

I was excited by what Laurie was saying about Queensland. The world of secondary schools is such a scary place for a lot of young people. You've got these large groups of young people moving, the bell rings and off they go to the next thing. I know some use that opportunity not to go to the next thing, because they're scared and they're not very good at it, and they know that's the opportunity to duck out for an hour or two - perhaps for the rest of the day. This idea of moving young people around doesn't work for a lot of them, unlike in primary where things come to them, people come to them.


Keir Bloomer

Two points about this business of learning by themes. One follows on from what Ann has just said. One thing which doesn't come out strongly is the concern that people had with the extent to which the subject was meant to be exam-dominated.

If you want to take somebody nowadays to see a 19th-century factory, the only place you can really take them is the secondary school.

It's the last boarded institution left, and it's interesting why we can't get away from that, because there's a lot of goodwill to do so, and almost everybody who has talked about this so far has agreed that we ought to be getting away from excessive subject domination, yet we don't do it.

The reason we don't is because of the other point - concern about exam domination. One thing we really opught to query is the extent to which the business of the education system becomes terminal examination. The world isn't ready to abandon it completely, although personally I would. But the way in which we use qualifications - whether it's universities or employers - doesn't seem to me to be the purpose of the educating institution.

We still insist on having certification at 16, 17 or 18 if you're still there. Why? Who uses the certification we give people at 16? As far as I can see, nobody. And removing that would be an easy first step which would condition people to the fact that there's a lot less of this required than expected.

The other point about this question of learning themes is a matter of balance. And it's about the nature of knowledge. We cannot simply abandon the thinking disciplines that lie behind subjects and the nature of the relationship between knowledge, not in the sense of random information that you recall for exams but deeply rooted knowledge, and the capacity to think and express yourself and do things. It is a profound relationship that we shouldn't throw away.

But we also have to recognise the fact that we have a curriculum at the moment which is based on a reductionist view of knowledge, on the idea of knowledge as specialisation. That view has its pluses, and the technological basis of the Western world rests on it. It's good at analysis, but it's bad at synthesis. Many of the big issues of the contemporary world are about drawing things together from different areas of knowledge, and our curriculum is appallingly bad at equipping people to do that.

So there's a deep theoretical reason for doing what people round the table have been wanting to do.


Michael Allan S6 pupil, Morgan Academy, Dundee

Having all the class merge into one sort of activity could benefit some people to the extent that they won't need to focus on using only maths or a language skill. You could mix things. Things like physics and maths mix, so use them and link them up with practical subjects such as craft and design.

This would perhaps be more productive for some people. Other people can learn the individual skills.


Becky Ward School captain and S6 pupil, Morgan Academy, Dundee

Personally, I quite like focusing more on a subject, but I would like the mix as well, so maybe both would work. Mixing them gives you a better idea of what it's actually like working at doing that skill in a real-life situation, building something in, for example craft and design.

You're not just learning what different textures are made of, or whatever, but you're drawing together other things you can actually do, and see how it's done, work with other people and see how they would do it and learn from everyone around.

I help struggling pupils in younger classes and there's the pupil council.

I've learnt a lot of skills and help communicate with people through that.


Tom Conlon

The issue of teachers' professional freedom is, I think, worth exploring at this point. It seems that we have a difficulty here. Scottish teachers, for at least a couple of decades now, have had their professional lives constrained. They've been given guidelines, regulations and targets and they've been held to account quite rigorously.

They're used to prescriptive curriculum arrangements, they're used to being told what to teach and to a large degree how to teach. It might not be an exaggeration to claim that our teachers have been treated like foot soldiers and are now asked to think like generals.

We need to support teachers to develop confidence and to believe that they have a licence to teach according to the needs of students rather than a set of HMIE-inspired syllabus arrangements. That will take time, and a lot of additional support.

Several things need to be done to make that process more reliable. First of all, I'm glad that more teachers are being produced in Scotland. I hope this can make class sizes diminish and also that teachers can be given lighter teaching loads. It's not credible to expect a teacher to deliver 25 high quality lessons per week, nor to expect a 15-year-old to sit through 25 lessons a week and be at a high level of concentration throughout.

We need to plan for a future in which there are fewer lessons, but with higher expectations of them, both in terms of learners who will do some independent work between classes and come into classes with something under their arm rather than just wander in swinging their arms, and teachers who've gone the extra mile in preparing that lesson.

We also need to look at how teachers are assessed. At the moment, the Scottish Executive uses a document called How Good is Our School? to assess teaching. That largely rests on the schools' so-called academic performance, as assessed by SQA results.

The screw is turned from the Scottish Executive on to the councils and from the councils to the headteachers and from the headteachers to the classroom teachers and the classroom teachers to the children.

We've got to break that system. I believe we should replace How Good Is Our School? with a document which is more sympathetic to A Curriculum for Excellence and which asks, for example, not whether young people have got their Standard grade chemistry but what their attitude is to chemistry now, having done that course. Would they voluntarily read a chemistry book in the evening? If they know there's a chemistry programme on television, would they watch it? Is their learning of chemistry deep, or will it be forgotten three weeks after the examination's over.


Alan Mitchell

All that would be a huge culture change and, although I said earlier on that people I spoke to recently couldn't define the excellence of education in terms of number of Highers, nonetheless a lot of employers are lazy in terms of taking exam results as a proxy for competence, an easy tool for them to use, at least at the first stage of sifting for interviews.

Shifting them away from that mindset will be difficult, but an employer who gets a well-crafted letter with a well-designed CV with things leaping out, who doesn't recognise that, irrespective of what it says in it in terms of grades, quite frankly I don't think their business is going to be around that long.

If we're developing all these communication skills, all these presentational skills, then in time that will become the proxy that people will use. Employers will grasp the idea that this is the output expected from this person when they come and work for me.

There is a whole issue about the workload on businesses, especially smaller businesses. Employers are saying that what they're looking for in education is not what the current system is measuring and quantifying. But they're going to have to play their part in getting those things, they're going to have to do more work in establishing who's best for their business rather than relying on other people to do it.


Stephen Shaw

We have to create in young people the desire to learn, giving them the skills to learn for the rest of their lives. We also have to accept that there will be employers out there who do want the actual academic qualifications, so it's important that we value both.

If you think of the young person out there who gets five As at Higher, for example, that says a lot about their perseverance and sacrifice and hard work; that's what people want to know about, so we mustn't downgrade that.

What we need is a balance between the two. It was suggested that we move completely away from academic attainment and I think that would be, in an ideal world, the way to go. But society, including parents, expect academic attainment to be there.

But let's have other measures where we can celebrate our success. Do pupils enjoy what they're doing? I think that is another valid measure of what we're doing in schools. Some of them relate to citizenship and the kind of things we've been talking about. We can say, as a school, that our attainment is OK. But this is fantastic, let's celebrate it. Can we have formal measures of success other than academic attainment?


Keir Bloomer

These are the kinds of things that Becky's mentioned. They're the kind of vocational activities that schools are involved in. For example, if you have close links with a college, then you can have young people in a city going off to college. Now that's a success but, at the moment, if your return rates are low the question is then asked:"why are they not coming back to school?" There are anomalies there that need to be addressed.


Clare McCance

Getting five As shows other things as well as the commitment and the amount of the work that young people have put in: it shows the way that they've learned. The question is how you assess different learners.

I'm dyslexic so I don't do well in exams. I couldn't study for a year for one subject; I wouldn't do it, because my brain doesn't work in that way. So we need to look at how we support people who have learning difficulties or who just aren't good at exams. They show that you're good studying for a subject, but are they a reflection of how good a learner you are?


Sarah McEwan

When we heard everybody's memories of school earlier in the introductions, most people's memories were not about their exams. It was about stuff like going on an exchange trip, other people they liked, the school disco, or whatever.

That begs the question of how you start to assess people with continuous assessment, for example using reflective approaches and learning how they learn and how they understand what they have learnt from things other than subjects.


Tom Conlon

Iquestion whether gaining five As at Higher is a measure of high academic attainment, and I question whether getting three As at A-level is a measure of high academic attainment. These may be measures of having passed successfully through a factory system in which the foremen and forewomen are successful in making their workers jump through hoops.

Figures for English private schools' A-level results show that more than 90 per cent of students at those schools now gain three A-levels; in fact, I think more than 90 per cent of them gained As at A-levels as well.

Teachers have become successful at training kids to jump through hoops that examination boards put up, and I'm afraid it's possible to have gained five As at Higher and not have developed the kind of academic qualities that many of us think are necessary.

The report on science and mathematics teaching in Scottish schools, which came from Scottish university academics a couple of weeks ago, seemed to reinforce that. Now, what we're developing is a capacity to regurgitate facts on the syllabus without having a integrated understanding or a creative capacity to solve problems and learn new information in the subject area.


Keir Bloomer

In the national debate, two groups of young people gave evidence to the education committee in the Scottish Parliament. They were all young people at the upper end of secondary school, all academically successful. As articulate young people, they were very critical of the experience they had had in secondary school.

They were asked by the chair of the committee if they could come up with anything they thought was memorable and formative in their life at secondary school. They came up with lots of things, exactly the same things as we got a few minutes ago: they came up with the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, had a great time in their week's work experience, they'd been on various visits that were hugely interesting, and so on.

So the chair persisted in asking about things that were actually in the classroom, mainstream curriculum? Silence. Apart from the comment that passes on the curriculum, the other notable thing about it is what we have done to inspire and enable young people: we have turned them into purely instrumental learners.

They are enduring it because they can see the usefulness of the end point, but they are no longer active participants in a process that they themselves value as being worthwhile. That seems to me the most damaging of all the aspects of an over-examined, over-assessed, over-regulated curriculum.

Another thing: when we are testing things, we know that we're testing what we want to and that it's worth doing in the first place. This relates to what Alan was saying. The report published recently (by university academics) reached the conclusion that, for those going on, for example, to do Higher maths, the curriculum was very important and it was difficult to ditch anything from it; by contrast, they said the science curriculum was by and large worthless. It was useless to people who didn't want to go on in science, because they did not raise the scientific issues that people are interested in as citizens. And they did not touch on areas near to the cutting edge, which was what universities and subsequently employers were interested in.

There's a need to do that kind of critical examination, not just of syllabuses as a whole, but their components, to ask what function it is that we are fulfilling.


Barry Greig

The only thing I was very good at was art. So I got a sense of power from achieving Standard grade art. I never got five As but I had a real sense of achievement. So passing an exam can be good, especially if it's the only one.

That's why work experience was important as well. It should be longer than a week, maybe four weeks or longer. It takes you into the real world, putting you into an employment situation and seeing what they can take from that - actually asking what you got from it, did you enjoy it and what exactly do you want to do with it?


Ann Darlington

We have been concentrating very much on the secondary age group. I think we also have to remember the importance of pre-school and primary education in preparing children for the rest of their lives, whatever form that takes, such as basic literacy and social skills which are so important. We can't lose sight of the fact if you can't read or access reading in some way, then you can't do any of the other things. So many children are fudging their way through. They're pretending that they can understand a lot more than they can and then they fall out with the system, either deliberately or they're thrown out of the system.

We can't lose sight of how important it is. I find it astonishing that there are still children who get into secondary school who read a basic primary one text book.


Gill Robinson

Thank you. That has been very challenging and also encouraging for the work that we're doing. It's reminded us that we're thinking about a curriculum that applies to every youngster, that the early years are so important, and that the interests of every child really need to be addressed.

There are lessons to be taken from that about how things might be organised but, balanced against that, we had Keir's points about the inherent value of giving young people the opportunity to engage with quite difficult areas of knowledge and learning.

Our challenge is to get the right balance between the thematic and the things which are core subjects. But one of the things that's been reinforced in my mind is that a lot can be accomplished through subjects.

It is also possible to take an area of the curriculum and develop all sorts of other strands through them - the sorts of things I think that Debbie's been doing, where you use something that you would be doing anyway and try to integrate in that way.

The starting point for each area of the curriculum is to look at the four capacities and decide what it contributes. This conversation is beginning to show us how we might do this. A lot of discussion was around recognising achievement and the real buzz you get when you have a significant achievement. What we've got to do is try to preserve all of that.

These and many other comments have been very helpful and will have an influence on where we finally end up.

The TESS would like to acknowledge generous support for these seminars from Learning and Teaching Scotland, Standard Life and Edinburgh City Council's e-team

Future TESS Education Conversations

October 28 Choice and opportunity for young people (Inverness)

December 2 Support for learning (Glasgow)

January 20 Tough, intelligent accountabilities (Edinburgh)

The conversation above was held at the Apex Hotel, Dundee, on September 23. It was chaired, as are all five conversations, by Ewan Aitken, TESS columnist and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities

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