CfE - and learning to be 'account able'

25th June 2010 at 01:00
Scottish education is having difficulty with Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Though "building the curriculum" for six years, we have not defined what it is

Scottish education is having difficulty with Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Though "building the curriculum" for six years, we have not defined what it is. So here goes.

CfE is ownership of learning pathways, curriculum connectedness, contextual relevance, active engagement and intrinsic meaning in learning. It is forms of learning to connect with 21st-century reality, whose knowledge, skills, processes, purposes and insights match our society; our ways of living, being, communicating, seeing and thinking.

What is stopping it? Process, power and attitude. Don Ledingham identifies a self-destruct mechanism deep in the Scottish psyche (TESS, April 23). Melanie Reid wrote of a culture of hypercriticism in education (The Times, March 31, 2008). These have roots in social theory, which takes me to process.

We stopped trusting teachers. Trust does not mean leaving people alone, but respectful engagement in their terms. The state thought it should and could measure every aspect of the being and actions of schools, to tell us "objectively" how "good" they were. It did not. It presented a behaviourist mechanism of control. We created a monster of specifications and an enforcement mechanism to apply them. CfE arose in reaction, which takes me to power.

In developing school self-evaluation, John MacBeath wrote Schools Must Speak for Themselves. Yet self-evaluation latched onto inspection, which turned it into its opposite: a grading matrix to fixed notions and imposed commentary.

Self-evaluation has to be about realising purposes and the creative, situationally-dependent means by which these may be realised. Grading to prescribed indicators does not do this. It constrains thought and thinking. We did the same to the curriculum and created a labyrinthine matrix of attainment targets and thereby a product model of learning. In all this, Scotland became a world leader at fixed specifications, judgment, control and silencing the professional voice. England did too.

Curriculum for Excellence is now blocked because these mechanisms are still in place, which takes me to attitude. We are talking a different game. But proclaiming something and enabling it are different. We are told that CfE has given responsibility and direction back to schools. It has not, and will not, until those who wield power over us grasp that it is a different model of learning. It is integrative. It is an insight model of learning, as distinct from a process model or a product model.

England may now be in a better position to move forward, because its debates are more frank and open. Chris Howard, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, spoke last year of "too many people minding forms and still not enough forming minds", and of a curriculum "nipped, tucked, stretched, squeezed and rebuilt more often than an ageing rock star as government seeks to micro-manage each social matter of the moment".

For Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, "ministers can exhort the system at length to do any number of things, but their words are wasted, lost in the ether, unless what they want is included in the Ofsted inspection framework".

The 2009 Cambridge Primary Review in England spoke of the curriculum strategies and control mechanisms of English school education constituting a "state theory of learning". It warned that "a process which has concentrated so much power at the centre and, over the course of two decades, has so decisively re-configured the relationship between government and teachers cannot be instantly unpicked".

The new UK Government is freeing up targets, control and prescription for England's schools, opening up a focus on accountability. Announcing a post-election forum on "accountable autonomy", the Cambridge review team asks "how professional re-empowerment can be achieved in a way that doesn't replace compliance and dependence by non-accountable licence".

Curriculum for Excellence cannot proceed unless we engage likewise. But we are about to do the opposite. Scottish schools are to be evaluated against "indicators of progress" agreed between HMIE and the CfE management board (TESS, May 7). This contradicts a central recommendation of the Crerar review, that audit should place emphasis on outcomes, not process measures. CfE has some 200 reflective questions in its guidance. This is sophisticated and welcome. It builds professionalism and local ownership of purpose. But specification will kill it. Which "indicators" will be chosen and how? Nothing has more bedevilled Scottish school education than looking over one's shoulder for the ever-changing "what are they looking fors" of imposed judgmental criteria in inspections.

We must now learn in system terms. Measures must be locally-owned to local purpose. If this is not grasped, we cannot enable an insight model of education, for staff or pupils. As the Cambridge Review team noted: "Children will not learn to think for themselves if their teachers are expected merely to do as they are told."

Accountability must become "account able" - and yes, mind the gap between the words, for CfE will fall down it if not noticed. A system which is "account able" is one ABLE to give an account of itself, at any level. In The Fourth Way of Leadership and Change, Andy Hargreaves argues that responsibility has to come before accountability: "Accountability should be mutual and transparent, not secret and one-sided."

We have not done that. If we do not, CfE will fail. But it could easily succeed. There is nothing complex about this conceptual shift - just the will, and the awareness, to do it.

Niall MacKinnon is a headteacher in the Highlands.

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