The Scottish Office consultation paper on the possible merger of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology raises some interesting and complex questions about the national management of curriculum development in Scotland.
Three options are put forward: the status quo, tidied up; full merger of both bodies, in which a national advisory role and a national curriculum development functions are combined in a single agency; and merger as in option 2, but separation of the advisory role of both organisations from the curriculum development function to create two bodies, one advisory and one with executive responsibility for curriculum development.
In response to the requests for views, I would say, first, that curriculum development and educational technology are not separate functions that must be pursued independently. We hear a lot these days from technological geeks - though not from SCET - who consider that when we are all wired up to the national grid the educational millennium will have arrived. On the contrary, it needs to be acknowledged that curriculum development is nothing if it is not concerned with the revitalisation of teaching and learning.
Second, there is value in having a single agency capable of offering independent advice to the Government on the development of teaching and learning in schools. That is a professional matter of some complexity and it is reasonable for a Secretary of State, given his responsibility for the quality of the educational service, to establish a body to which he can turn.
If it has any sense, such a body will wish to consult with the wider educational community to satisfy itself that its advice is well grounded. For his part, the Secretary of State need not accept what is proffered: but he will then have to live with the political and educational consequences.
Third, there is no necessity for a national advisory body on the curriculum actually to engage in curriculum development. Among those who are chosen to be members of the advisory body will be those who are themselves experienced curriculum developers. Such members of an advisory body derive credibility and professional authority from their own involvement in curriculum development rather than the curriculum development undertaken by the national advisory body.
Fourth, there is value in maintaining a national agency. Scotland is a compact educational entity; there is a national commitment to ensuring that all pupils undertake a broadly comparable educational experience. It is for that reason that we have become used to massive curriculum changes on a national scale, and we have also come to accept that teachers need to be supported in coming to terms with the demands of significant change.
The national agency can accumulate examples of successful curriculum development and of how the resources of educational technology can be used to enrich learning; it can accumulate expertise on curriculum design and development; and it can be a base to which teachers and others can be seconded.
Fifth, while, as has been noted, there is no necessity for a national advisory body actually to be a curriculum development agency, when the advisory function and the curriculum development function are combined there is a strong possibility that the advice is likely to be more authentic.
However, it is difficult to have a body which has a reputation for offering independent advice if that same body is beholden to the Government for the delivery of certain curriculum development services. That conflict of interest is likely to be accentuated by the degree of control that is exercised.
On this matter, the consultation paper takes a consistent line: it refers to the need to ensure that "curriculum development is carried out in accordance with Government policy". It wishes to see a clearer prioritisation of the work of the curriculum council and regret is expressed that it has not always been possible to ensure that the priorities of both parties are in alignment.
The consultation paper is persuaded of the validity of "the case for a coherent advisory and developmental body". At the same time, the paper appears strongly committed to protecting the independent advice offered by the curriculum council and for that reason rejects the suggestion that the SCCC should be "brought more closely within the Scottish Education and Industry Department".
How are these two desiderata to be achieved, so that the one body offers genuinely independent curricular advice while simultaneously undertaking curriculum development activities that reflect the Government's priorities?
Two suggestions might be made. First, a merged body would be able to protect its independence if its advice was made public. That is the surest test of independence . There is no reason why the wider educational community and, indeed, the wider public should not be informed about the nature of the advice offered.
Second, the national arrangements for curriculum development should be widely debated and much more open to democratic scrutiny by the new parliament. Our experience over the past decade has demonstrated that curriculum development can effect significant improvements. It has also demonstrated that the curriculum can be a focus for conflict and confrontation.
If both these conditions can be met, that is, if the new merged body can make the advice it offers public, and if the programme could be subjected to a greater degree of democratic scrutiny, option 3 would be eliminated. That would leave option 2 as the only sensible way forward.
Gordon Kirk is dean of the faculty of education, Edinburgh University.