CfE is not simply another initiative - it's an imperative

2nd March 2012 at 00:00
We should get behind it, back it, see its benefits for our children in this day and age. Now, that's something to really think about

Some 2,372 years ago Plato suggested that necessity was the mother of invention. To be more precise, Plato was actually quoting Socrates, whose actual words were "A State, I said, arises, as I conceive, out of the needs of mankind". "let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention."

Up until the "invention" of Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland did not have anything that resembled a national curriculum that covered the school age range from 3-18. Instead it had disconnected blocks of curricular, assessment, and design guidance, which included: the Munn and Dunning reports (1977), 16-18 Action Plan (1983); Standard grade (1984); 5-14 programme (1993); Higher Still programme (1994); Curriculum design for the secondary stages (1999), and Review of Higher Still (2001).

To use a good Scots word, the curriculum was a complete "guddle", a mish- mash of well-intentioned programmes and projects which layered sedimentary systems one upon the other. It was no wonder then that in 2002 the Scottish Executive undertook the most extensive consultation ever on the state of school education through the National Debate on Education. This was followed in 2004 by the publication of the first single, connected curriculum for young people aged 3-18 in the form of a Curriculum for Excellence.

Throughout the intervening years I have observed, led, written about, and engaged with the implementation of the curriculum. What is particularly interesting at this point in time is how it is target for criticism from all sides. It was ever thus, as any historical analysis of correspondence and professional response to any of the aforementioned curricular programmes would attest.

In reality I'm relaxed about the ongoing debate about the assessment and certification arrangements - in fact I'd have been surprised if such a healthy debate had not ensued. Assessment and certification are integral and high-stakes elements of any education system. But the bottom line here is that these are matters in which we have proven skilled at resolving over the years - and they will be resolved again.

No, my concern is not so much about that debate but that we collectively seem to have lost sight of the bigger opportunity presented by Curriculum for Excellence. I refer here to its over-arching purpose and aspirations.

And before you despair again as someone tries to mix and match together the adjectives and nouns of the four capacities, e.g. confident learners; responsible contributors; successful individuals and effective citizens, I'd like to stop you there. For over the past few months I've been worrying about the uncertainty and adversity facing our young people. I recently wrote about my fears for a generation of young people who are in danger of "learned hopelessness", where their destiny is marked out in front of them - but to this group I would also include here those who leave school with a clutch of qualifications.

As I reflect upon the four capacities, I begin to wonder why it is that the words seem to be so interchangeable and I'd like to suggest an answer. For on further analysis, I believe there is a unifying purpose which connects and gives meaning to the four capacities - and that purpose is "resilience".

My point is that if we didn't have Curriculum for Excellence, then we would have had to "invent" it. Curriculum for Excellence is not another initiative - it's an imperative, a necessity, something which we as a society should be backing, demanding on behalf of our children and young people. I am continually sustained by the fact that there are so many people in Scotland who do "get it". Despite the lone voices who claim to represent their profession and hark back to the good old days of curricular certainty (regardless of how disconnected it was) - there are so many more teachers who believe passionately in the values and aspirations of a coherent and purposeful curriculum.

Those teachers know that our young people face a complex and uncertain future. They know that young people will be faced with challenges and opportunities which will be quite different from previous generations. The kind of curriculum required to equip young people with the necessary personal and interpersonal skills and qualities to render them resilient is quite different from one designed for a stable and unchanging world - regardless how much simpler that might have been for teachers.

I see teachers and school leaders struggling to come to terms with this reality on a day-to-day basis, professionals who have the respect and trust of parents who understand that their children must have a more "rounded" education. Teachers understand that true change requires us to engage with and embrace complexity and uncertainty, and although this is an uncomfortable truth, they are making immense strides to create an education system which has the potential to be the envy of the rest of the world.

So at a time when 14 per cent of students are dropping out of university education, surely it's time for university principals to begin to support the wider aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence and break free from their outdated focus on achievement at Higher grade at a single sitting. Perhaps if they took a more enlightened view of education there might be more chance for young people to develop the necessary resilience to meet the demands of university life?

Such a statement would have incredible resonance throughout the Scottish education system and would give confidence to those who are so single- mindedly committed to preparing young people to succeed in an uncertain future.

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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