Heads target 5-14

10th January 2003 at 00:00
A GROUNDSWELL of opinion is gathering pace for reform of the 5-14 curriculum, which has been condemned as too complex and confusing. Schools contacted by The TES Scotland this week were unanimous in calling for changes, backed by teacher training experts.

The TESS "focus group" showed strong support for reform, although heads do not believe the 5-14 baby should be entirely thrown out with the bath water. There is particular criticism of the workload involved, the narrowing of the curriculum and the failure to arrest the decline in pupils' performance as they move into the upper primary and lower secondary stages.

The first signs of a rethink in official circles came towards the end of last year from Roddy Duncan, the inspectorate's primary specialist. Dr Duncan startled primary heads by delivering a mea culpa in which he accepted that HMI shared the blame for developing a curriculum which had lost its focus on thinking and creative skills.

"We do not deny that at all and I would not pretend to," he said.

In his first interview since taking up the top post, Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector of education, told The TES Scotland it was now time to "build" on the 5-14 experience. But Mr Donaldson defended 5-14's record. "It made a significant contribution to primary education and was right for its time," he said.

"It allowed us to think about the structure of primary education, particularly coherence and progression. Before 5-14, primary education could be a very disjointed experience for many pupils.

"Now is the time to build on the benefits and 5-14 will be the starting point."

The Educational Institute of Scotland and the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland, representing primary heads, have both called for root and branch reform. The present curriculum is "undoable" in the time available and is content and skills-driven which spells the "death knell" for creativity, Kay Hall, president of the AHTS, says.

Alana Ross, EIS president, has called for a review of the overcrowded primary curriculum but said teachers must be involved.

"Much is discussed about flexibility in the curriculum," Moira Leslie, head of Raigmore primary in Inverness, commented, "but the implementation of 5-14 has, in many cases, led to less flexibility and creativity and to a more slavish and sometimes frantic gallop through the curriculum."

Ms Leslie added: "There is a danger that 5-14 can be open to abuse such as teaching to the test or treating it as lists of activities to be ploughed through."

Susan Gosling, head of Bankier primary in Falkirk, said staff believe the 5-14 guidelines are too "woolly" at times. There are also inconsistencies: measuring straight line distances on maps is level B in maths but level C in the old environmental studies programme.

Jean Todd, head of Glencairn primary in North Ayrshire, said the curriculum constituted "a diluted version of too many subjects at the expense of solid, in-depth teaching of basic skills and knowledge, as we try to ensure we have completed a week's timetable".

Leading figures at the two largest teacher education institutions have reinforced the calls for change. Graham White, head of primary education at Strathclyde University, said he would want to keep the basic 5-14 structure but it was too complex. "There are too many levels, outcomes, strands - just too much detail - and this is where teachers get bogged down," Mr White said.

He also suggested the levels were too ambitious, particularly for low achievers - the attainment of level B for some pupils by the end of P3, for example.

Frank Adams, director of undergraduate studies in Edinburgh University's education faculty, suggested that 5-14 could become a "historical concept" very soon. Mr Adams hoped the national debate might produce changes in which teachers were no longer subject to a "top-down process" and from which a "consensus curriculum" emerged.

Curriculum overload, Scotland Plus, pages 2-3

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