Five years on, how is ACfE for you?

28th August 2009 at 01:00

The start of a new session, almost five years since A Curriculum for Excellence was published, seems a good moment to take stock, to remember the original aspirations and to consider how far they are being met.

The aspirations were ambitious: transformational change in curriculum and pedagogy to create an education fit for purpose in a world of unprecedented promise and threat. It would be too much to expect that to have been achieved in five years, but it is legitimate to ask if we have come as far as we should.

The Building the Curriculum series is the main source of high-level advice that has been provided. So far, it is difficult to see any strong overall organising principle. We have had advice on the contribution of curricular areas when help with inter-disciplinary work is more urgently required. There is a paper on active learning in the early years where it is well established, but nothing for primary and secondaries. It seems less than satisfactory that, nearly five years on, the series is manifestly incomplete.

Volume 3 - a framework for learning and teaching - is by far the most substantial contribution to date. It contains a number of ideas that are not only immediately useful but point in the direction of future possibilities. For example, there are welcome suggestions on developing inter-disciplinary approaches to learning. Schools are urged to give young people access to diverse opportunities for personal achievement. More radically, they are invited to consider more innovative forms of organisation than the traditional age-based class.

Very significantly, there is advice on personalisation, the most problematic and radical of the seven principles. This advice is not well- organised or brought together in one section, but it is practical and forward-looking. Personal support for the individual learner is given unprecedented prominence. There are hints about differing learning styles and alternative means of delivery.

Such ideas can give schools a useful start to the complex and contentious task of developing a truly personalised education service. At this early stage, it would be unreasonable to expect a blueprint. As we move forward, our view of the destination will become clearer, and bolder changes will appear possible. However, this sense of being on a journey is completely absent. There is no long-term perspective, no concept of immediate and practical changes as the first steps towards a more distant objective.

The second example relates to the "experiences and outcomes", which tend to be seen as the main output of the development programme so far. They are certainly the most visible, the only part of the key documentation to have been issued to every teacher in printed form. This has attracted quite un-justified criticism. In any profession, members should expect to be kept fully-informed in the most accessible way possible. Giving every teacher the opportunity to see how their stage or subject contributes towards broader objectives is entirely appropriate.

The outcomes have two great virtues. They shift the emphasis from content and its recall to developing personal capacity. This is not some kind of dumbing down by relegating knowledge to second place, but a recognition that part at least of the value of knowledge lies in what it enables a person to do.

Second, they try to give guidance on curriculum design without resort to excessively detailed prescription. They are not, I think, intended as an old-fashioned catalogue of content (though some of the sets tend in that direction), but as a new way of looking at course design.

In point of detail, they are easy to criticise. I have referred before to the ridiculous and pretentious definition of literacy. One could also ask why progression, which surely lies at the heart of the concept, is almost absent from the health and well-being set. It is clear that, at points, the "I have . and I can't" formula breaks down in practice.

However, taken as a whole, they are an attempt - albeit flawed - to do something difficult but worthwhile. They seek to define the curriculum in a way that is purposeful, permissive rather than prescriptive and concerned with achievement more than content. The problems do not lie in the detail, but become only evident if we ask bigger questions.

How effectively do the outcomes take forward the fundamental purposes of ACfE? If schools are expected to develop the four capacities, why are the outcomes (with the exception of health and well-being) almost exclusively focused on successful learners? Why have they not been systematically used to take forward even modest innovations advocated in BtC3? Why has the idea been allowed to develop in the minds of teachers that the experiences and outcomes and A Curriculum for Excellence are one and the same? Cover the outcomes and implementation is complete. Boxes ticked: job done.

There is the nub. Transformational change is still allegedly the aim. As recently as last week in her article in The TESS, Fiona Hyslop referred to ACfE as "the biggest transformational development in Scottish education for decades". Developments of that kind cannot be achieved in a single attempt. They require far-reaching change not just in the curriculum per se, but in pedagogy, in the structure of schools and much else.

Such comprehensive transformation requires careful structuring of change and long-term vision - areas where the programme is weak. Viewed as the template for fully implementing the new curriculum, the programme is a failure. Viewed as a fairly cautious first stage, it has shortcomings - but also promise.

What it needs is strong organising principles to give it coherence, and a restored sense of vision to give it purpose. If ACfE is no more than a random collection of ideas for incremental change, it will bring modest improvements, but no more transformational than Standard grade development or 5-14.

However, if those same ideas are taken forward within a bigger strategic framework that effectively links short-term practical steps to a clear and ambitious long-term vision, then much more is possible.

Keir Bloomer was a member of the review group which produced A Curriculum for Excellence.

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