The debate around "senior phase curriculum" is intriguing. I use the word "debate" loosely, as there is still a relative hush around when the "senior phase" is mentioned. One would almost believe that, at the utterance of these words, the hooded monastics of the timetable order are temporarily awakened from their slumber and leave their cloisters to join us to dispense their sage knowledge.
The construction of a senior phase curriculum should build on the knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions gained from a broad educational experience from 3-15, which values attainment and wider achievement and uses this scaffolding to prepare young people for the next transition in their lives. At the point of S4 specialisation, there is, for some, the conundrum about how to structure a senior phase experience. I would suggest that "context" is essential and we have this at our fingertips.
Some of the best work in education over the past three years has been at the hands of those leading the initiatives in programmes such as More Choices, More Chances and, now, 16+ Learning Choices.
This work, in my authority at least, has generated robust data which illustrates what has been happening to our young people after the age of 16 over the past five years. We can track the impact on further and higher education, training programmes and the local labour market as pupils leave school. We know that 34 per cent of young people in East Ayrshire attend higher education programmes at post-16, while 32 per cent attend further education. About 8 per cent go into training and 13 per cent into employment. Although reducing, through good works, approximately 14 per cent end up "not in education, employment or training" (Neet).
We also know that the main occupations available in our authority are still, despite the recession, in construction, social care, service and hospitality. Given this detailed knowledge, it makes sense to structure a senior phase curriculum around ensuring the transition needs of all these young people are met. This means, for example, that if a secondary school with a similar and consistent destination profile as the one described above - and now with a stay-on rate of 80 per cent in S5-6 becoming increasingly common as a result of the recession - was to offer 60 per cent of its places to Higher courses in academic subjects, one might ask whether this school was meeting the needs of its pupils.
And if a headteacher knows that the trend in herhis school over the past five years is for 30 per cent of the pupils who leave school to enter further education, seeking training programmes in the vocational areas, the legitimate question to ask of that headteacher would be: what will be put in place in the senior phase curriculum to best prepare this cohort to make their transition successfully? For example, is there evidence of comprehensive skills for work and vocational programmes embedded from aged 14-plus? Will the pedagogy and assessment models on offer prepare a student who may be embarking on a Higher National Certificate or Diploma to cope with the nature and style of learning in these courses?
We do know that in relation to HigherAdvanced Higher and university, there is effective preparation, albeit not always consistent. But is there parity of esteem for the large percentage potentially going to FE, training or employment?
Finally, if there is over 10 per cent of a cohort in the Neet category, what alternative curriculum programmes will we create to minimise such a significant minority of young people dropping out?
Some may argue that this would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of lowered standards, and limit the opportunity of the "lad o pairts" by pigeon-holing some young people into pathways which may be below their potential ability. On the contrary, a senior phase curriculum premised on helping to ensure "sustained positive destinations" would create a range of pathways in the curriculum, set by a clear context and range of positive outcomes. Young people would have the opportunity to choose their pathways and, with good guidance and support, move between pathways if deemed appropriate.
This is the closest we will come to individualised learning and would undoubtedly increase the opportunities for personalisation and choice. This curriculum principle must also, of course, formally build in wider achievement programmes to further develop the "four capacities" of a young person. These wider opportunities should be integral to the curriculum choices and link seamlessly into the context of the pathways available to them. There is no space for "bolt on" additionalities in a new senior phase curriculum.
Fundamentally, asking those responsible for creating a senior phase curriculum to recognise their responsibility for devising a model which is geared towards supporting a sustained positive destination for every pupil in their care, irrespective of ability or any other socio-economic factor, will focus attention on what is finally produced. It will also ensure that the final product is flexible, inclusive, involves all interested parties and is fit-for-purpose.
Even the timetable monks in their cloisters would have to give that principle the nod of approval.
Andrew Sutherland is head of schools at East Ayrshire Council.