Curriculum for Excellence - Likened to a French comedy, but no one is laughing

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Secondary headteachers this week outlined to the Government their concerns about the biggest educational reform in a generation. Was it listening?

Headteachers want clarity on "what needs to be done, by whom, and by when" - that was the message picked up by the Government's head of education this week.

Philip Rycroft, director general of education and lifelong learning, spent a morning listening to secondary heads' concerns about A Curriculum for Excellence and summarised the tensions thus:

"How do we balance central guidance with local flexibility? You don't want to go back to the old prescriptive ways. You do want responsibility to manage your schools, but don't want to make it up on your own," he told delegates at a conference in Glasgow.

"You want a 'Curriculum for Excellence for dummies'. You want material to help you explain this to your own staff, pupils and parents. You want clarity on outcomes and experiences and exemplification. You want clarity on the qualifications and assessment framework to allow you to work with your staff and work your way forward."

Mr Rycroft recognised that heads were anxious they might not be ready for the implementation date of August 2010, but it was important to avoid "a sense of drift".

There was tension about the Government's process of developing new national qualifications, he acknowledged. It had been a risk to have an "open-door" process which did not provide all the answers at once and inevitably led to "some discomfort".

"Many of you would have liked this to move forward more quickly, but none of you want to go back to the Higher Still process which was five years in the making and four years in the unmaking."

But the biggest concern, he acknowledged, was over the ambitions for change and the resources available to secure it at a time of tight fiscal constraints.

A further strain was the "push" from the school system and the "pull" from those who educated those leaving its product.

"If universities in particular don't respond to A Curriculum for Excellence, a lot of your work will be in vain," admitted Mr Rycroft.

While heads wanted flexibility in the system to offer genuine responsiveness to individual learners, they also wanted the process of accountability to local authorities, HMIE or national government to be proportionate, he added.

Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector of HMIE, counselled heads not to get too "hung up" on assessment.

"I believe that the statement, that we are worried about Curriculum for Excellence because we have to wait for the qualifications, is fundamentally misguided. If we get Levels 3 and 4 (S1-3) right, the qualifications will flow from that," he said.

"What we must do is construct a qualifications system that builds on the firm foundations of a general education that is much better than what we have just now. The outcomes and experiences will provide the reference point that most of us are looking for," he insisted.

Mr Donaldson likened the curriculum debate to Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, a satire on social climbing, in which one of the characters finds he has been speaking prose all along. The French comedy, he said, was "a bit like Curriculum for Excellence" - many of the outcomes and experiences were similar to what a lot of teachers were already doing in Standard grade.

The Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, said that teachers tended to be looking over their shoulders and thinking that someone was going to stop them from pushing ahead with ACfE. She hoped that what they had heard from HMIE would help secondary heads to realise that HMIE was part of a partnership.


The general consensus was that there were still more questions than answers, particularly with regard to assessment and achievable timescales. Schools are not going to make dramatic changes until they see the final shape of the assessment framework. I fervently hope our opinions are listened to, particularly with regard to "general education" - no one's told me what that is. One of the real issues is the wrong title - if they had called it "Teaching and Learning for Excellence", we would not have had death by a thousand tons of paper.

Graham Herbert, Lockerbie Academy, Dumfries and Galloway

I was a bit concerned by the end of the morning; lots of questions had been raised but there were no answers. But I thought Philip Rycroft's summing-up of the messages from the morning was really encouraging. Of the tensions he identified, the key one - not addressed by Fiona Hyslop or Graham Donaldson - was the dilemma between a national framework and local flexibility. While I welcome flexibility, if they are serious about providing an entitlement to a broad general education for all, they need to have a clear focus on all young people. If you have 400 varieties of education, then the most vulnerable may lose out because they tend to be the ones who move from one school to another because of a chaotic lifestyle and family circumstances.

Isabelle Boyd, Cardinal Newman High, North Lanarkshire

There was a lot of enlightenment but I still want to see more clarity on the shape of the curriculum, particularly at S1-3. I think schools still want a clearer steer on exactly what they are going to be asked to do within the new structure. Overall, however, there was a great deal of engagement and reassurance today: the listening approach from the minister and Graham Donaldson was welcomed.

Duncan Ferguson, Plockton High, Highland

It has been a very worthwhile day which has given us confidence. There are still questions, but I have to believe they are going to be answered. From my point of view, these questions would be mainly to do with pupils' destinations - universities, employers and so on - and whether the qualifications they want will match with A Curriculum for Excellence in S4-6.

Dot White, Dunblane High, Stirling


The Scottish Government is to provide Pounds 4 million funding for an extra 100 experienced teachers' posts next year to support A Curriculum for Excellence, writes Elizabeth Buie.

The additional teachers will work across Scotland to embed good practice in learning and teaching, but their secondment to CfE work will release jobs for post-probationers.

Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, said: "This Government is recognising the challenge that is Curriculum for Excellence by creating extra capacity to support all of those involved in its implementation."

Brian Cooklin, head of Stonelaw High, Rutherglen, and past-president of School Leaders Scotland, publicly urged Ms Hyslop to create additional teachers' posts to ease post-probationer unemployment and to support the curriculum reforms, when she attended the secondary heads' conference on ACfE this week.

He told her he had spent recent weeks writing references for new teachers applying for jobs in countries such as Abu Dhabi, Canada and Australia because there were so few in Scotland.

The jobs announcement came on the day the Scottish Government released statistics showing a drop of 2 per cent in the number of teachers employed across Scotland from 57,743 in September 2007 to 56, 825 a year later.

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