Dogfight at the heart of a new curriculum

24th April 2009 at 01:00

Now that the final guidance on A Curriculum for Excellence (ACfE) has been unveiled, it is worth reflecting on the journey that has brought us to this point. It seems a long time since the original report of the national review group in 2004 but, compared with earlier curricular reforms, the timescale is not exceptional.

Previous piecemeal reform of the secondary curriculum, starting with the Munn report, taking in the relevant parts of 5-14, and concluding with Higher Still, took about 25 years from conception to practice.

Curricular change is slow and it is likely that rolling out the new curriculum will feature enthusiastic reception in some schools, but also sceptical resistance in others.

Keir Bloomer, a member of the review group, recently said ACfE would not be fully implemented in the lifetime of anyone present (TESS, March 20), and deplored what he saw as a retreat from the grand conception of the original recommendations to the cautious, small-scale proposals of Building the Curriculum 3. We still await guidance on assessment and qualifications.

This historical view is vital, as I would predict that in 10 years, whichever political party is in power will present an account of the reform that bears little relation to the reality. Politicians like to present policy-making as rational, based on evidence, argument and a shared vision of the future.

In practice, it is more like a dogfight in which rivals compete for power, sniff out the opposition, form temporary alliances in the face of common enemies, and bark with pleasure when injured players have to leave the field. A dispassionate analysis would have to take account of the obstacles and setbacks, the territorial disputes and personal rivalries, as well as the advances and achievements.

Senior civil servants (including members of the inspectorate), acting on instructions from successive education ministers, have been crucial in determining the programme's strategic direction. But much of the day-to-day development work has been delegated to staff employed by Learning and Teaching Scotland, many seconded from schools and local authorities.

My sources tell me that there has been much internal disagreement about the direction of travel - reflected in changes of personnel and, sometimes, in an authoritarian management style. One person, for example, published a few articles raising perfectly valid issues about aspects of ACfE, but was "warned off" and told to stop airing his views in public. Presumably, the person who issued that instruction was unaware of the ironic contradiction between his or her censorship and the desire to promote independent thinking among learners.

Other aspects of the reform process also invite scrutiny. University staff, who might have had something to contribute to curriculum thinking, have had limited involvement. Does that indicate a lack of trust, a fear of intellectual input? And throughout, there has been an insistence that it will ultimately be up to schools and local authorities, not central government, to ensure the success of ACfE - a clear case of devolving responsibility without a corresponding devolution of power.

Walter Humes, is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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