'Deep audit' of schools that sank at the shallow end

1st June 2012 at 01:00
The exercise resulted in some aches and pains, and revealed the dismal state of professional dialogue in our schools

Education Scotland recently published the result of its much-vaunted "deep audit" of the secondary sector's state of readiness regarding the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence. I suppose "deep" is a relative term. The shallow end of my local swimming pool measures 3ft, which is fine if you are 6ft 2in but definitely a problem if you are 2ft 6in.

I'm tempted to extend the imagery to encompass a vision of teachers drowning under the workload implications of implementing the CfE reforms, but let's simply examine where we are.

First, we should acknowledge the rather flimsy nature of the audit. Although it was unilaterally initiated by the Cabinet Secretary, it became part of the discussions between the EIS and Mr Russell that led to an agreement on the senior phase support package. As such, the intention was to broaden the scope of the exercise to allow the voice of the profession to be heard. Indeed, the EIS built into the text of the agreement the provision for EIS school branches to be able to raise with Education Scotland, through the national body, any concerns about school views being sidelined or misrepresented.

The single biggest response we got from school reps when we asked for comments, however, was "What audit?"

The whole process, unfortunately, remained a fairly high-level engagement between Education Scotland and local directorates. In most cases, councils consulted with headteachers, occasionally with principal teachers, but rarely did it involve staff meetings or even departmental discussions.

The exercise has revealed, with a few honourable exceptions, the dismal state of collegial practice and professional dialogue as mainstays of our schools. And yet CfE as a framework is predicated on schools operating on this very basis, with a clear recognition of the central role of the teacher as the key professional.

Frankly, local authority directorates need to start living up to the rhetoric of this reform; their apparent desire to march in step to a uniform chant that "all is well" does themselves, and the schools they work with, a disservice. Many teachers would fail to recognise the summary statements made by their employers about their readiness to proceed.

We need an honest appraisal. We should recognise the problems that exist, allowing us then, perhaps, to address them. The recent research report from the University of Stirling makes very interesting reading in this regard. In a balanced way it revealed the positive nature of CfE reforms but highlighted that the managerialist approach from local authorities and from some school leaders was in danger of stifling progress. The absurd "audit culture" that developed around experiences and outcomes is a good example of needless bureaucracy, as are the excessive forward planning and reporting being inflicted on primary teachers in the name of CfE.

The senior phase agreement, however, represents a substantial step forward, as does the publication by the Scottish Qualifications Authority of final course specifications. The most common reaction in schools has been to welcome the detailed commitments made by the Scottish government, but also to suggest that we are now where we should have been a year ago.

It would be foolish, therefore, to think that major challenges do not remain. The audit report, for example, acknowledges that many schools, indeed many local authorities, are beginning work on National 4 and 5 courses not next year but next August (for some schools, this June). The Cabinet Secretary's promise of fully fleshed-out course materials for the new qualifications, in all subjects, leaves these schools with a dilemma as the delivery date is 2013-14.

Where local authorities have sanctioned, even encouraged, this approach, they have a duty to provide course material to their subject departments in order to support teaching staff in the delivery of the curriculum.

Another key area of support that could be developed is authoritative identification by Education Scotland of those areas of subject content which are common to both Standard grade and the new qualifications. There is absolutely no need for teachers to be discarding, wholesale, current course materials. Some criticism has been levelled at perceived similarities between National 4 and 5 and current arrangements, but CfE has always primarily been about pedagogical change. Reassurance about the value and validity of current content would be beneficial to teachers and pupils.

The audit report reflects the idea that the next two years should be seen as a transitional period and that is clearly an accurate assessment. It is apparent already, however, that many schools are reluctant to embrace by- passing lower-level qualifications, especially between National 5 and Higher. The absence of an appropriate safety net (bi-level teaching won't do it) is pushing schools towards seeing National 5 as a benchmark S4 award, followed by pursuit of Higher in S5.

This begs two questions. How is breadth to be maintained in the senior phase, starting in S4, when subjects will be demanding additional time to deliver the qualifications? Factoring in prior learning from the S3 broad general education phase is a valid approach, but school timetablers will still find it difficult to meet the time demands from the more content- heavy subjects.

And even if they resolve that issue, won't we be left with a move into S5 which will simply replicate the current two-term dash to Higher? These issues are on the table and teachers and schools need clear direction on them from the Scottish government and from the CfE management board.

Curricular reform is an evolutionary process; open and on-going dialogue is essential - "tablets of stone" tend to sink no matter what depth the water is.

Larry Flanagan took over as general secretary of the EIS teachers' union in April.

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