Freedom to break the rules
A Curriculum for Excellence remains something of a mystery to teachers. Its purpose is transparent and widely welcomed - to create successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. But exactly how this will be achieved in the classroom, particularly the secondary school classroom, is far from obvious.
Most schools remain reluctant to move too far from the existing curriculum until they have seen the new guidelines, due to be published next summer. This is despite the Scottish Executive's insistence that the basis of good practice in classrooms, under the new curriculum, will be good practice and action research in other classrooms.
"There remains a feeling that we are going to reach under the table, bring out 'one we made earlier' and spring it on the profession," commented a senior figure in the Scottish Executive education department recently.
"That is not going to happen."
Schools that have decided to take the executive at its word, and move ahead with curricular reform, are thus the focus of considerable attention - as headteacher Colin MacLean and two of his teachers discovered at the recent Scottish Learning Festival, when they presented a seminar on ACfE innovations at Auchinleck Academy.
Located in an area of high unemployment, the school has been turned around, according to the local council, to become one of the best in East Ayrshire.
In 2004, Mr MacLean received a CBE in recognition of his work at the school, where performance levels have "improved dramatically".
So while other schools await the appearance of the slimmed-down curriculum, Auchinleck Academy has been developing courses, free from the straitjacket of summative assessment, that will foster life skills and build young people's confidence. Somehow the management has created time and space within the packed school week.
"When ACfE came along, we realised it wasn't dissimilar to what we had been doing for some time with enterprise," says Mr MacLean. "We've had a fair bit of success using enterprise to improve young people's confidence and build their skills, so we decided to widen it out, and offer a range of new CfE courses in first and second years. These would not be related to 5-14, nor would they be assessment-driven. But anyone who bought into them would have to deliver the four capacities."
The method used to create time for the new courses was simple in principle but complex- even controversial - in practice. Periods were reduced from 55 to 50 minutes, allowing two more to be squeezed into every week, on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The proposal met with resistance from a fair number of teachers, particularly those in practical subjects who felt that existing periods were barely long enough, says Mr MacLean. "I had hoped to get consensus among the teachers," he says, "but after a lot of discussion, I realised it wasn't going to happen. In the end we put it to a vote - the first time I had ever done that - and there was a majority in favour of the changes."
Parents were also consulted. "On a cold February night, 160 of them came out to discuss ACfE. I was taken aback by the groundswell of opinion in favour of the proposals. The parents were really fired up by the idea of their children getting a choice of different types of courses, which would be multi-disciplinary and would lead to personal growth," says Mr MacLean.
Pupils were consulted, too, through the student council and again the response was very favourable. So departments at the school were all invited to offer new courses specifically aimed at delivering the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence.
These courses have now been running since June and include music theatre, covering most aspects of stage craft; video production; graphics with animation; games; fitness and aquatics; creative and aesthetic activities, covering contemporary and street dance and floor gymnastics; creative art projects; German; literary circles, which are book clubs run by pupils; and the business world.
The new electives take the form of two individual periods worked into the pupils' timetables during the week.
The experience of participating in them is, however, very different from the usual classes, say both teachers and learners (see below).
PROS AND CONS OF THE NEW COURSES
* Courses explicitly develop the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence.
* Courses offer real-life challenges and rewards.
* Pupil choice and absence of summative assessment bring motivation, creativity and a supportive atmosphere.
* Behaviour and achievement are improved.
* Working in groups develops vital social and life skills.
* All children can contribute something to class projects.
* Courses are fun, for pupils and teachers.
* Class contact time of 21.5 hours can be delivered with 50-minute but not 55-minute periods.
* Teachers of practical subjects prefer longer periods.
* There are now two different lengths of school day.
* Some teachers believe developing the four capacities is more difficult in their subjects.
* No summative assessment makes accreditation and rolling courses out to other year groups challenging.