Challenges, chances and change

19th September 2008 at 01:00
Teachers have reacted with ambivalence to the new curriculum, according to this week's research report by Glasgow University, based on feedback from online questionnaires, school trials and focus groups. Here, The TESS summarises the tensions at the heart of the reforms

The curriculum changes represent "a challenge for teachers, creating opportunities for greater creativity, choice and autonomy, but simultaneously bringing with it concerns about curriculum structure, pupil assessment and professional accountability."

That emerges as a key theme of the research study by Glasgow University, with calls for "a major programme of continuing professional development" to include opportunities for teachers to discuss ideas about developing the curriculum and share good practice.

There were also complaints about the use of jargon in the guidance. One teacher said: "If you went through this with parents - `Your child is an effective contributor, a responsible citizen, a confident individual' - they would just say: `Ah, but is he any good? Did he pass? Is he doing OK? Right, that's fine, don't blind me with this'. It's enough for us to get to grips with it, without inflicting it too much on pupils."


The science focus group was generally supportive, but there were "significant misgivings" about whether the plans would be at the expense of core skills and knowledge. Although teachers were enthusiastic, they called for dedicated time to plan ahead and develop resources. They also wanted support in distinguishing between what is expected at different levels. They saw tension between "increasing flexibility in the curriculum and the request for greater direction". And they wanted guidance on progression and assessment.


The numeracy focus groups welcomed the opportunity to "review our methodology" and the encouragement to liaise between primary and secondary teachers. Their main concern was "strengthening consistency in interpretation and building effective systems for monitoring cross- curriculum provision and pupil progress". The feedback from trials and online questionnaires echoed this theme, reflecting concern that more time should be given, through CPD and whole-school planning, to ensure a greater understanding of numeracy across the curriculum. There was a widely-expressed view that many of the statements were vague and that more detailed guidance would be needed. The attempts to bring the numeracy curriculum closer to "real life" were welcomed.

Modern Languages

Focus groups were generally enthusiastic about the proposed changes and saw potential for stronger cross-curricular links, especially in terms of an integrated approach to literacy. There was a commitment to the development of a broader range of innovative approaches and methodologies, and a recognition of the possible role of technology in enhancing learning. Teachers wanted reassurance rather than substantial re-writing. Comments from the focus group were "infused with a sense that this was a curriculum area `under threat' or `on the cusp'", and the reforms were therefore an opportunity to revitalise modern languages. The most prominent themes were a concern for elaboration and exemplification to ensure consistency in interpreting the guidelines, and hence assessment, and to provide stronger cross-curricular links.


The focus group supported efforts to extend the range of teaching and learning approaches, in particular the emphasis on problem-solving. Participants were concerned with the detail provided to support both teachers' planning and the accurate measurement of standards. The provision of nationally-coordinated CPD, with examples of work, and opportunities for teachers to work together in schools were recommended as important. Maths teachers wanted "more detail, with greater specificity and fuller elaboration."

Classical languages

The focus group generally welcomed the proposals as promoting enhanced opportunities for teachers to think about their practice and for pupils to reflect on their learning. Teachers did not raise specific issues about clarity or content, focusing instead on general matters relating to assessment and the capacity of pupils to engage in self-assessment and reflective dialogue. Continuing professional development was mentioned as a key requirement, involving exemplification and ICT training to broaden teaching methodologies. Teachers were "very keen" to share experiences, exemplars and ideas with other teachers during the implementation of the revised curriculum. Without more CPD and exemplars, they would not have confidence in embracing changes. Charting pupils' progression was seen as a particular challenge.

Gaelic learners

Initial and continuing language training for teachers was a key demand. There was felt to be a lack of "child- friendly" resources - a potential barrier to development. One respondent in the small number of submissions to the online survey also highlighted a need for a pupil textbook. Teachers pointed out that a strong relationship between age and level did not necessarily apply to Gaelic learners, and that variation in progression routesrates was to be expected. There was enthusiasm about the inclusion of Gaelic culture in the curriculum, which was seen as an opportunity for making links with other subjects.

Expressive arts

The focus group was strongly opposed to the term "magic" in the draft experiences and outcomes, which they felt did not represent and might even undermine the status of the creative and expressive arts. In addition, they sought further detail to support planning, but were wary about an over- emphasis on assessment. The feedback from trials highlighted a need for further guidance and support in different forms - CPD, exemplification and further elaboration. Many teachers were said to be "immersed in the `5-14 mindset'", and the draft experiences and outcomes posed "a significant challenge to their existing philoso- phies and classroom practice."

For teachers to be confident in working with the revised curriculum, they wanted continuing support. But the online questionnaire revealed complaints about lack of clarity and lack of guidelines, which made planning "extremely challenging". Experienced teachers, it was felt, might be able to modify their practice easily, but a large number of teachers would need to learn new skills.

As with the focus group, there was a strong objection to the use of "magic, wonder and power", even where used as a metaphor.

Social studies

The focus group was "generally very positive" about the flexibility, principles and values of ACfE, especially for pupils with additional needs. Participants drew particular attention to the draft documents as a source of critical reflection on current practice and a catalyst for improvement. Where concerns were raised, these were primarily related to the issue of assessment, and this is where greater clarification was sought.

Many of the teachers who completed an online questionnaire were seeking answers to questions.

"It appears from their questions that there is still haze obscuring teachers from understanding the steps forward," the report states.

"For them, an `end point' is crucial as it heavily informs their planning process. They wanted to know where they were going, as this is what they perceived to be the key for getting there."

Clarification on progression, transition and subject-specific issues were all deemed significant.

Literacy and English

In the focus group, teachers welcomed the flexibility in the revised framework and the "enhanced professionality" it implies. But they wanted joint planning and the sharing of good practice at school, regional and national levels. They saw this as one way of meeting the continuing concern among a small number about variations in interpreting the new framework. Exemplification of good practice was another important "scaffold". The most pressing concern was a lack of confidence in using the draft experiences and outcomes to assess progress within and between the wider levels. Some concern was expressed about placing the literacy experiences and outcomes in the Literacy and English framework only. It was argued that if literacy was the responsibility of all teachers, the experiences and outcomes should be embedded in all subjects.

Literacy and Gaidhlig

The opportunities for tailoring learning experiences to real-life contexts and for cross-curricular work were welcomed. The focus group welcomed the opportunities to reflect on current practice and the scope being given to teachers to be more creative in their work. This endorsement of greater flexibility, within a clear framework, also emerged from the questionnaires. Where further guidance was requested, this was primarily in relation to planning and assessment. The importance of consistency in interpreting and monitoring progression within and across levels was underlined.


Curriculum for Excellence: The Next Phase - Learn about the latest developments and the shape of the next phase, by Gill Robinson,

Learning and Teaching Scotland,

September 25, 9.30am.

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