The gloves are off in CfE grudge match

10th October 2014 at 01:00
Labour on the attack over `botched' implementation of reform

Education secretary Michael Russell has refused to shoulder the blame for the fraught introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), accusing political opponents of "willing it to fail".

Mr Russell came under sustained attack in the Scottish Parliament this week, as Labour MSP Neil Bibby repeatedly called on him to apologise for what he called the "botched" implementation of CfE. Much of Mr Bibby's ammunition was provided by a survey from the EIS teaching union, showing that two-thirds of teachers considered support to be "poor" for the new Highers - after widespread difficulties with the introduction of National qualifications last year.

Mr Bibby, deputy convenor of the Education and Culture Committee, also highlighted the Royal Society of Edinburgh's view that there had been a "lack of a systematic strategy" for the implementation of CfE.

But the education secretary insisted that mistakes would always accompany such large-scale reform and that all organisations involved in CfE should bear some responsibility.

Mr Russell accused Mr Bibby and Kezia Dugdale, the shadow education secretary, of willing the reform to fail. He cited Ms Dugdale's claim earlier this year that he should "take responsibility when [implementation] goes wrong". It was an example, he said, of negativity from Labour that jarred with everyone else's efforts to make CfE work.

"Frankly, I was right.the introduction [of new qualifications] has been successful," he said.

But Mr Bibby attempted to keep up the pressure by issuing a statement shortly after the education committee hearing describing the implementation as a "debacle" and calling on Mr Russell to apologise to pupils, teachers and parents.

This week's political boxing match is an unusual blip in the curricular reform process, which has largely been a consensual affair so far. The changes were introduced more than a decade ago under a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition and political opponents have tended to concentrate on specific details rather than criticising the general direction of travel.

But Professor Walter Humes, co-editor of the respected reference book Scottish Education, detected a change of tack following the No vote in the referendum last month.

"I sense that Labour has decided to go on the attack post-referendum," he said. "So there may be an element of political opportunism in Bibby's attack on Russell.

"The vote of no-confidence in the justice secretary Kenny MacAskill [on Wednesday] provides additional support for this interpretation."

But Labour was not alone in raising concerns with the education committee this week. The National Parent Forum of Scotland complained that the National 5 qualifications had involved a "mountain of content" in some subjects.

Mr Russell acknowledged that "over-assessment" was a problem when Nationals replaced Standard Grades in 2013-14, but suggested teachers had overcompensated to ensure that pupils received good marks and that this would subside over time.

The latest controversy comes after it was admitted at an education committee meeting last week that many teachers and school leaders still did not fully understand the CfE reforms.

Ken Muir, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, said there remained "some way to go in terms of teachers - and in some cases, headteachers - understanding the basic aim of what Curriculum for Excellence is trying to achieve".

Both education directors body ADES and the Scottish Qualifications Authority insisted that teachers had never received as much support in implementing an educational reform as they had for CfE - although this was disputed by EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan.

Last week's committee meeting also emphasised a general consensus that results from the first year of Nationals had been impressive, although the EIS survey also found that a third of respondents did not feel results were as good as they should have been.

Mr Muir added: "I think we're over the hump in getting Curriculum for Excellence into place, but that's not to say we've resolved all the issues and all the problems."

Meanwhile, the EIS welcomed "highly significant" comments by Mr Russell at this week's committee meeting, suggesting that teacher numbers would be maintained or even increased in the years ahead, despite pressure from some local authorities to cut back on staffing.

Fighting words

Labour MSP Neil Bibby:

"The Royal Society of Edinburgh has said that there has been a `lack of a systematic strategy' for the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. I see that you are smiling at that. That is not a laughing matter."

"Do you accept that you have made mistakes and do you have regrets or is it other people's fault?"

Education secretary Michael Russell:

"Everybody who has been involved in the process has made mistakes. Everybody can think of things that they would want to do differently."

"To be honest, Mr Bibby, you should try to be part of that success [of CfE], not will its failure."

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