The dangerous word is 'curriculum'

15th February 2008 at 00:00
A remarkable level of agreement marked the discussions of the review group that wrote A Curriculum for Excellence. We all felt the report should embrace the traditional values of a liberal education but range more widely, setting out ideas about personal development, social cohesion and the nature of the world young people will experience.

Despite this unanimity on the big issues, I imagine we had minor reservations. One of mine related to the title. The word "excellence" seemed complacent, certainly redundant. Who would set out to write "a curriculum for mediocrity"? In retrospect, I was wide of the mark. The dangerous word is not "excellence", but "curriculum".

Our paper is not a curriculum. It says almost nothing about the content of courses or the sequence of learning. It has few references to pedagogy and, beyond making the vital point that assessment should serve the curriculum and not the other way round, it has little to say about testing or certification. It is about growing from fulfilled childhood towards purposeful adulthood: being a successful learner is only part of this transition.

The word "curriculum" firmly inhabits teachers' comfort zone. When the first fruits of the development programme are described as "learning outcomes", all fears are banished. Bold rhetoric notwithstanding, many teachers believe they can discern a curriculum development like others that have gone before - a marginal rearrangement of existing components to meet requirements that are differently described rather than fundamentally altered.

But suppose, instead of developing "learning outcomes", we were to talk simply of "outcomes"; and, rather than looking at "successful learners", the emphasis were to be placed on, say, "confident individuals". How different would the programme look?

However, we are where we are. Much useful, if conventional, work has been done. A fresh start is not open to us. Instead, other means must be adopted to persuade teachers that more is involved than the medium-term, centrally-led development programme that leaves fundamental issues unaddressed and the broad vision unfulfilled.

I suggest four steps. First, sell the big picture. A Curriculum for Excellence is challenging and ambitious. It could give Scotland the first education system in the world really attuned to 21st century needs. That is a message that young people, parents and business, as well as teachers, will receive willingly.

Second, define objectives in terms of broad "outcomes" relating to all four capacities, not just successful learners. Tackle issues like promoting the higher-level intellectual skills needed today, building self-esteem and commitment in young people and teasing out the relationships among knowledge, understanding and capability.

Third, demonstrate a real commitment to the seven curriculum principles. What do schools need to do to offer a more personalised service? How do you reconcile enjoyment with coherence and rigour?

Finally, recognise more than one approach to innovation. Should the development programme not be concerned with identifying existing innovative practice and promising but untried possibilities, as well as creating a neat but abstract description of outcomes?

Is it not time to inject a spirit of idealism and adventure?

Keir Bloomer is the former director of education and chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council.

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