The conical curriculum

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Reform of the secondary system is a test of the ability of councils to deliver a better service

THE Scottish secondary school curriculum has become a barrier to pupil progress. It is now widely recognised that in the first two years children are faced with far too many teachers. In middle school there are too many so called subject specialisms and while the problem has been recognised in S5-S6 with the introduction of Higher Still, by then it's too late.

This protectionism of the subject-based status quo cements rigidity into a secondary system, that has recently been granted a settlement reflecting its proper status; one with operational autonomy, realistic reward based on performance and a renewed standing in society.

Yes, the McCrone medicine does exactly what it says on the label, but only following careful preparation and considered application. This reform of the secondary system is a test of the ability of councils to deliver real change in return for the huge investment now being ploughed in. If this test is failed, other public sector options will be considered, voluntary sector partnerships will be investigated and the threat of the private sector will then loom large. The "bog standard" charge used by the Prime Minister's official spokesman applies to councils as much as schools.

Choice of provision will be the lever of change, with direct comparisons emerging in health, in housing and elsewhere. All across our key public services a real return on real investment is being sought. The structures that support the strategic planning of services and the systems that deliver them have been forced into the spotlight by the creation of the Scottish Parliament. Previous practice is at last being challenged.

The crucial piece missing from the picture thus far is involvement in the design and running of services. Parents and pupils have practically no involvement in the teaching and learning programmes offered by their local schools. Other services are equally poor in this regard.

A lack of involvement in the special relationship between provider and user not only leads to poor quality, it calls into question the very notion of public service. The next step from there is to question the effectiveness of a weak imitation measured against the efficacy of the real thing - a private sector alternative. Local diversity is the only way to avoid this eventuality.

The change driver that will most dramatically impact on local diversity is the curriculum. The whole-school community must have the power to shape the teaching and learning programme to reflect its own local needs, albeit within a (much relaxed) national framework as set out in the national priorities for education. Both the structure (the authority) and the system (post-McCrone management) must encourage participation if education is to remain a public service. This is where the response to the national debate should pick up, particularly taking advantage of the massive capital invested in the schools estate.

The private investment programme, regardless of one's political or policy position, provides a historic opportunity for a step change of public involvement, removing the traditional focus on campaigning (for better buildings, cleaner classrooms) and allowing parents and pupils to turn their attention to what goes on inside the classroom. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Supply of potential involvement is therefore about to reach a historic peak just as the demand for enriched education programmes is growing to almost fever pitch. Even in the controlled market that is the development of our teaching and learning programmes, these two sides of the coin do create a change currency. This must, though, include the wide range of cultural activities that should fill the twilight period between the end of the standard school day and the time when working parents arrive home.

Everything from homework clubs to sports clubs, from debating societies to historical societies, from making music to learning how to make money.

rovided by a team of professionals, co-ordinated but not necessarily run by teachers, these activities have a crucial role in the development of young hearts and minds. As integral elements of the education programme, they must be free at the point of delivery, just as the other knowledge and skills parts of the programme will continue to be. The benefit to the operability of a school from the running of such an active supporting programme is immense and must therefore be a core part of the education service we provide to our youngsters.

This enrichment is yet another change driver bringing a new coherence to the curriculum. It questions complacency, confronts conformity and challenges the relevance of curricular content by creating a new context.

Moves such as these give power back to the pupils and their parents, shifting it away from the producer interests that have dominated public services.

As the learner begins what should be a journey of discovery, they should be empowered to choose their pathways, enabled to criss-cross a seamless curriculum which is not segmented to suit the system that delivers it. A lifelong education can be a coherent experience, linking arts and science, developing knowledge of history with skill in music, appreciating cultural differences alongside technological change.

This coherence can be viewed as a conical curriculum, beginning from the point of the (upturned) cone and then spreading outwards and upwards through experiential learning which interrelates and doesn't ignore the similarities in skills between different subject areas.

Ross Martin is director of the Scottish Forum for Modern Government.

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