The devil is in the detail

21st September 2007 at 01:00
THE CABINET Education Secretary has told teachers that they must develop A Curriculum for Excellence in a way that makes sense to them and at a pace that suits them.

But experienced maths and science teachers have warned that the latest draft outcomes, published this week, will require substantial support in the form of continuing professional development if they are to be implemented successfully, particularly by inexperienced staff.

Fiona Hyslop told teachers at the Scottish Learning Festival this week that ACfE was not primarily about prescriptive curriculum content or structures, but about focusing on the outcomes that learning and teaching should achieve for young people.

"This is not a programme to be imposed through central guidance the draft outcomes are a starting point for agreeing the shape of guidance at a future date. They should also act as a guide for reflecting on practice right now," the minister stressed.

Her comments coincided with the release by Learning and Teaching Scotland of the first major sets of outcomes for ACfE in science and numeracy.

Ms Hyslop said all primary and early years teachers and a good many secondary teachers would be interested in the draft science outcomes, and "all teachers should be interested in the draft numeracy outcomes", as they should all be contributing to making young people numerate.

But concerns about the lack of prescriptive detail continue to dog the new curriculum discussions.

Stuart Farmer, a past chair of the Association of Science Education in Scotland, and head of physics at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, said the science outcomes covered a good range of contexts and investigative and experiential skills. "My worry is that the actual science is not explicitly laid out. It would be very easy to get carried away looking at the applications and technological developments without explaining the underlying big ideas of science," he warned.

The "outcomes" were the tip of the iceberg, but teachers would need considerable support material to underpin the draft document.

"Without people thinking carefully and getting a shared sense of what these outcomes mean, it would be possible for someone to think they were doing a good job teaching the curriculum but missing out the important science," he said.

Alastair Gillespie, chair of the Scottish Mathematics Council, welcomed the stress laid on the importance of numeracy across the curriculum.

The message from STEM-Ed, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics association that the curriculum covering these areas should be more integrated had clearly been picked up, said Professor Gillespie.

He welcomed the separation between numeracy and mathematical skills, saying there was confusion in the public's mind over the two.

But one colleague on the SMC, Chris Pritchard, took a diametrically opposing view: "The dichotomy between numeracy (that is, arithmetic) and mathematics so long a feature of Scottish courses, but somewhat suppressed during Standard grade's reign appears to have reared its head again.

"Not only is this dichotomy false, but by placing everyday aspects of topics in the numeracy statements and the technicalities (pure mathematical aspects) in the mathematics statements, planning will prove unnecessarily complex."

The lack of detail in the documents would be attractive to teachers who were self-assured, but might frighten the less confident, including "inexperienced teachers receiving poorer support following structural changes at school and authority level", he added.

The renewed emphasis on statistics would also create a significant demand for professional development.

John MacKenzie, principal teacher of maths at Oban High, welcomed the recognition that numeracy was a core skill which permeated the curriculum, but warned that the lack of detail might give rise to "a lack of consistency in interpretation".

"For experienced teachers, this need not necessarily be problematic. However, for new, inexperienced and less confident teachers, further exemplification will be essential if consistency of interpretation across the country is to exist," he said.

Mrs Hyslop acknowledged that inexperienced teachers would be concerned, and was keen for local authorities to develop the necessary CPD to support them. Feedback from teachers would shape and provide further detail before the curriculum guidance became final.

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