Survey the landscape of Scottish secondary schools and you will see a patchwork quilt of curriculum models for pupils entering the senior phase of their education.
The emphasis on giving pupils personalisation and choice, alongside an over-riding aim of raising attainment through Curriculum for Excellence, has given schools the freedom to design curriculum structures in a myriad of different ways.
These range in the stage they make subject choices - anything from the end of S1 to the end of S3; the number of subjects - five to 10; whether they sit a qualification over one year, one-and-a-bit years, or two years; whether they allow early presentation of National 5s in S3 or Highers in S4; and whether they offer electives in wider achievements.
Our case studies show four different exemplars and rationales (pages 14- 15), but another school, which asked not to be named, has adopted a particularly radical model which could see its pupils sitting eight Highers in S5. They will be asked to make eight "picks" at the end of S3, each of which are given three periods per week in S4. In addition, they have six periods devoted to wider achievements or REPSE.
This model presumes pupils will bypass Nationals 4 and 5 and gives them the potential to do eight Highers in S5, or a mixture of Nationals and Highers over two years. Subjects are being split into half-courses so that a pupil could, if he or she wishes, do a Higher in one year by, for example, doing both half-courses at the same time - six periods per week.
The metaphor of a patchwork quilt may not be quite right, as it suggests the different pieces fit neatly together. Increasingly, however, concerns are being raised that the growing diversity in structures - often between neighbouring schools and within and across authorities - could not only put pupils moving from one secondary to another at a serious disadvantage, but also skew staffing arrangements.
Frank Lennon, head of Dunblane High, describes the national implementation strategy for Curriculum for Excellence as based on "diversity planning".
"It appears to be based on decision-making at individual school level," he says. "Thus the hope appears to be that individual schools will arrive at what they individually deem to be an appropriate curriculum for the broad general education in S1-3 in their particular circumstances and have it fully implemented by August 2012. Subsequently, individual schools will plan, develop and implement a senior phase (S4-6) tailored to their individual circumstances.
"If `diversity planning' is the strategy, it certainly seems to be working: no centrally-produced national plan has emerged and even at local authority level, no clear approach seems to have emerged. So it appears that the individual school is the key driver of the approach."
The problem with leaving curricular structures so much in the hands of individual schools, he argues, is that within a local authority, "one school's innovative CfE implementation strategy might become another school's staffing problem if the CfE innovations result in staffing imbalances". The new models, along with tight budgets, will inevitably create surpluses and deficits in subject departments, he fears.
He asks a series of further questions around national assessment:
- What will be the measure(s) of attainment for schools once CfE is fully implemented? Will there be a measure for the broad general education at the end of S3? If so, what will it be? If not, how is the broad general education going to be evaluated nationally?
- Has any assessment been made of the likely norms for the number of subjects an S4 student in a Scottish secondary will study? If not, have the consequences of having more diversity at the end of the four years of compulsory secondary education been evaluated?
- Have any assessments been made of the impact on staffing and resource allocations of schools within the same authority offering significantly different CfE programmes?
Parental concerns have, in the meantime, not been greatly assuaged by the pound;3.5 million package of additional support for implementing the senior phase, agreed last week by the EIS and the Scottish government.
The Scottish Parent Teacher Council suggests the majority of parents want Nationals 4 and 5 to go ahead in 2013-14 as planned, despite the confusion caused by East Renfrewshire's decision to opt for a year's delay.
But they are concerned that the communication flow from schools to parents has been "patchy and often inconsistent" and they claim that "some local authorities are apparently re-labelling the status quo to retain a 2+2+2 model in secondary school rather than the 3+3 model which parents have been told to expect".
"This," says Eileen Prior, SPTC executive director, "is contributing to the pressure on teachers and young people."
"Students currently in S2 should be remaining in the broad general education phase for a further year (until 2013), but instead many find themselves selecting subjects for National courses which do not yet exist," she adds.
The organisation wants to see "quality feedback" to parents on the audit by Education Scotland - and steps taken as a result of its findings. It is calling for a plan of action to promote and support more widespread adoption of the 3+3 model in secondary schools in Scotland, and a further action plan to support schoolparent communication over the next 18 months.
"Where parents have expressed most doubt and concern is in relation to three key aspects of CfE: changes to assessment and reporting; the two- phase (3+3 as opposed to 2+2+2) secondary model, and therefore subject choices; and the new National qualifications. They feel ill-informed about the changes being introduced, confused by the language, uncertain as to how their child will be affected," says Mrs Prior.
Concerns regarding the Nationals have been heightened by the decision by East Renfrewshire to delay introduction of the new qualifications, opting instead to continue with Intermediates for a year, she says.
"Many parents are not convinced by the `special case' argument - their simple question is this: if it is good for young people in East Renfrewshire, why is it not good for my child? And if it is not good for my child, why is it good for children in East Renfrewshire?"
A lot is therefore riding on Education Scotland's "deep audit" of schools' readiness to implement the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence, which is due to be completed today. In two weeks' time, Education Scotland expects to have analysed the responses, across 32 authorities, to four areas of inquiry:
- schools' readiness for delivery of the senior phase and National 4 and 5 qualifications;
- the extent to which schools have engaged with the draft qualifications specifications that the Scottish Qualifications Authority has issued - recognising that the final versions will not be published until the end of April:
- how schools have been planning for the transition between the broad general education into the senior phase;
- and the extent to which there is parental understanding of implementation and development.
Education Scotland's monitoring of progress is not, and has not been, confined to a few weeks' "deep audit", Kenneth Muir, HM chief inspector, told TESS. He argues that a school's state of readiness changes almost weekly - and something a principal teacher might identify as an issue today might well be clarified in a month's time, when the publication of final course arrangements takes place.
The audit should help Education Scotland get a handle on the support needed - at school or department level or across different subject areas - he believes. "Part of what this audit is about is identifying beyond what we identify in inspection as the very good practice that is taking place. That will be shared directly in the system through Education Scotland or through ADES (the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland)," he adds.
Most of the audit work is being carried out by Education Scotland's network of district inspectors liaising with directors, heads of service and senior managers, although some of Education Scotland's top officials - its senior management group - have also been involved.
But questions have been raised by teacher unions over Education Scotland's capacity to provide support, particularly since the organisation's staffing has been slimmed down, following the merger of its two main components, Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE last summer.
Mr Muir points out that it will not be Education Scotland staff alone who deliver any support identified as necessary - the education authorities' quality improvement officers will also lend their expertise.
The EIS, however, remains concerned at the gap in perceptions between some of its members and headteachers and education managers as to the level of a school's readiness. For that reason, last week's agreement reserved the right of EIS school branches to bypass headteachers and local authorities and raise directly with Education Scotland any concerns or requests for support "where a school or department feels that its state of readiness is being misrepresented and the disagreement cannot be resolved locally".
One education director, who asked not to be named, disclosed concerns about the efficacy of Education Scotland's "deep audit". Headteachers, says the director, are loath to put their heads above the parapet and disclose details of struggling departments.
The director also questions how deep the audit actually is, since many authorities have simply filled out a pro forma set of questions issued by Education Scotland, without interrogating the detail.
CASE STUDIES: Four schools, four different models and one shared hope to succeed
WILLIAMWOOD HIGH, EAST RENFREWSHIRE
The majority of pupils at Williamwood High in East Renfrewshire will have completed the Level 3 Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes by the end of S2, which is why the school wants to begin work on national qualifications in S3.
Headteacher John Fitzpatrick says: "That does not mean they haven't had a good learning experience or they have been hastened unduly towards achievement, but if the experience is right in primary and the gradient of learning is right, these youngsters are arriving advanced in their learning. If they did not move on, they would mark time."
Mr Fitzpatrick argues that although his youngsters will make subject choices in S2 for S3, the curriculum will remain broad and CfE principles will still apply.
If pupils waited until the end of S3 to make subject choices and begin certificated courses, they would have to do fewer subjects, he argues. This would also impact on staffing and accommodation.
"People argue you could still do the eight (in S4) by building on the learning that has taken place in S1 to S3 and in some subjects like English, maths and French - the core subjects - that might work. But in the social subjects or computing there would be too much to do."
He continues: "When you are introducing change of that kind there are five big questions you have to be able to answer `yes' to. One of them is: `Is there an educational gain?' I think what we have got is better for our youngsters.
"If this was a different school, there might be a different set of answers. It is right that each head looks at the pupils in his school."
DUNBLANE HIGH, STIRLING
The vast majority of pupils at Dunblane High in Stirling will achieve seven National 5s by the end of S4, predicts headteacher Frank Lennon.
He is also hoping that pupils can receive credit for 11 subjects they undertake during the school's broad general education from S1-3 in the form of National 4 qualifications.
"Having finished the curriculum development in S1-3, I asked my principal teachers if the courses they had developed for Curriculum for Excellence could be matched against the emerging requirements for Level 4. The conditions and arrangements don't come out until May but it is possible that work done in the broad general education could be sufficient to evidence National 4. Because every subject, except home economics, will be allocated two periods a week in S1 to S3, they all more than qualify to meet the 160-hour National 4 time allocation."
Pupils would not be presented for National 4s until the end of S4. Mr Lennon predicts, therefore, the typical Dunblane High pupil will end up with seven subjects at National 5 and four subjects at National 4 by the end of S4.
The school plans to fit in seven National 5s by starting the S4 timetable when study leave begins at the start of May, giving them at least an extra four weeks of teaching.
HILLHEAD HIGH, GLASGOW
Hillhead High in Glasgow is taking a purist approach to Curriculum for Excellence, says head Willie Wight.
The school has opted for a 27.5-period week to increase teaching time and decrease the time spent walking around corridors.
"We are not here to deliver subjects, so not everything is covered, but every mode in Curriculum for Excellence is covered and we have satisfied the outcomes and experiences."
There is minor personalisation and choice for pupils at the end of S2 with major option choices taking place at the end of S3.
In S4 pupils will study six or seven subjects, including at least one slot of wider achievement, which could mean involvement with the Prince's Trust charity or a community project.
The majority of pupils will sit Highers and National 5s over two years, with pupils looking to leave school at the end of S4 following a separate timetable.
A minority of pupils could sit Highers at the end of S4.
"We ran a pilot with 26 kids who got a Credit 1 at Standard grade maths to trial the two-year Higher but now the teacher is saying they will be ready to sit the Higher at the end of S4," explains Mr Wight.
Mr Wight's main concern about the school's new model is that pupils sitting the Higher over two years, and bypassing National 5, will only have National 4 to fall back on if they fail.
"In some ways I feel a bit isolated and worried," he continues. "I seem to be going against what friends in Glasgow are doing, but we have been steeped in Curriculum for Excellence at Hillhead and we have fully embraced the principles. However, if I feel my pupils are being disadvantaged in any way, we'll go back to doing what we have done for the past 25 years."
MOFFAT ACADEMY, DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY
P7 pupils spend one morning a week at Moffat Academy - an all-through school in Dumfries and Galloway - studying science in proper labs and getting a taste of subjects like French, drama and geography.
The secondary has planned delivery of the Level 2 and 3 Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes in conjunction with their primary colleagues, says headteacher Lesley Watson. "Most secondaries will be starting Level 3 fresh in S1 but we are able to plan collaboratively with our primary colleagues to make sure there is clear progression from primary straight into S1," she says.
In S1, pupils experience a wide range of subjects and at the end of the year continue with eight in S2, along with PSE, PE and RME. All pupils study English and maths.
"They still cover all areas of the curriculum but they pick one subject from the social subjects, one science, one subject from technology and so on. They then have one free choice."
If a pupil chooses history, any of the social sciences outcomes and experiences not covered in S1 will be covered in the context of history, says Mrs Watson.
Moffat Academy pupils will also have the opportunity to take on an elective or an interdisciplinary project for blocks of 10 to 11 weeks for one-a-half hours
S4-6 is to be a combined senior phase, with pupils studying five or six main subjects. One and two-year Highers will be on offer as well as a range of vocational courses, and subjects at National 4 and 5.
Some pupils in some subjects may be considered for presentation to the SQA at the end of S3.
Original headline: The patchwork of curriculum models could come unstitched