Grasp this chance to make changes

28th March 2008 at 00:00
It's simple: secondaries teach to exams.

Those responsible for the implementation of A Curriculum for Excellence have been getting a lot of feedback recently, not least in these pages. The TESS reported on March 14 that the curriculum is "under attack". They must be very pleased with this. As American self-help guru Tony Robbins says, feedback is "the breakfast of champions".

Let me pass on a little of this from my own experience of talking to teachers about the new curriculum.

There is growing evidence that primary teachers are taking the promised de-cluttering and release from 5-14 outcomes seriously and picking up on initiatives that bring fun and joined-up thinking back to learning. But I have not met a single secondary teacher who believes the emperor has clothes. I have worked with a lot of them on the outcomes. They do it to humour me. They don't really buy into any of it. It's the exams they are waiting for. That's what they teach to.

The comment of one secondary teacher illustrates this neatly. He pointed out that "the trouble with ACfE is that they have got it the wrong way round". In other words, they should have changed the exams first.

I managed to persuade him that, in an ideal world, figuring out what we want young people to learn surely ought to come before deciding what we should examine, and how. However, he does not work in an ideal world but in a secondary school driven by examinations which he and many of his colleagues believe dictate not only what he teaches but how he teaches it.

For him, the "emperors" are the inspectorate who will hold him, his department and his school accountable for many things, but principally for levels of attainment in national examinations. And rightly so. But he wants to know what the new examinations will assess and how.

It's a reasonable position. I don't criticise secondary teachers for waiting for the exams. Take three teachers on a course on creativity recently who were asked to apply what they had learnt through working together to do something different in an imaginary school.

The art and design, English and technology teachers decided to "live in the real world" and snatch a few periods to do something different across their departments in unexamined "learning to succeed" time.

One of the things they had learnt was the importance of lateral thinking and how to "whack yourself on the side of the head". For me, the highlight of the day was when someone suggested they should teach each others' subjects. They were scared at the thought, but delighted with their idea.

So the message for ACfE is clear. Teachers need opportunities to work together across primary and secondary and across subjects with the broad outcomes that have been produced. But this process needs to get under way quickly, before those who decide which subjects will be examined - and how they will be examined - take over.

Ian Smith, founder of Learning Unlimited.

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