History repeats itself ..

9th January 2009 at 00:00
... the first time as tragedy, the second as farce

With its emphasis on outcomes and experiences, interdisciplinary enquiry and a focus on literacy and numeracy, A Curriculum for Excellence is familiar territory to primary teachers. The most recent Building the Curriculum document concedes as much: "The primary teacher's overview of learning ... (is a) major potential strength in promoting coherence in learning". It is a different story for secondary teachers who, in the early stages of secondary schooling at least, are asked to abandon their subjects in favour of "for example ... using small teams of teachers and other staff working together to cover curriculum areas".

Furthermore, these and other massive changes in pedagogy will be supported by "outcomes and experiences" which might be described, kindly, as nebulous. One might have expected the writers of BTC3 to have exercised a degree of caution in such a radically new context. Not a bit. The document seems confident that this is "a collaborative approach to planning which enables young people to make connections between different areas of learning".

The S1-3 phase is to be a period of "broad general education", the purpose of which is to "provide young people with a strong platform for later learning and for successful transition to qualifications at the right level." There are those of us who can remember when this might have been the function of the primary phase or S1-2. What is to be gained by a retreat to S3? Secondary teachers might be reassured if proposals and exemplars were available for critical examination. Unfortunately, we have only vague phrases.

We need answers. How many curriculum areas will be studied in S1-3? How will this be delivered? How will breadth and balance be assured? What are the implications for subjects which are "core" and "non core"? How will S3 students make the transition to S4 and the greater depth of study therein?

If the curriculum document offered nebulous platitudes, the consultation on National Qualifications offered a clear plan for secondary education. It was, and is, wrong.

The new examinations may be unitised and these units, graded by secondary teachers who have little else to fill their time, may count towards the final award. Perhaps those who favour this might consider recent research which suggested that teachers are working beyond 35 hours weekly. They might also talk to teachers in England about the problems of policing "coursework". And has anyone spoken to the SQA about the problems of maintaining national standards or the associated expense?

We are to have literacy and numeracy exams. Literacy and numeracy are critical, and it is vital that all teachers contribute to these outcomes. Have no doubt: statistics relating to these examinations will become public property and elements of the press will use them. Will teachers be tempted to "teach to the test" to avoid such calumny?

Then we have the proposals to "increase flexibility to better meet the needs of young people". These boil down to presenting youngsters at any point from 12, 18, 24 or (unless early presentation is banned) 30, or even 36 months. The recently announced delay of one year in implementation is welcome. The time must not be wasted.

The Scottish Government must work with the authorities, teaching unions and secondary teachers to reach a consensus about the shape and content of the secondary curriculum and the pedagogy which delivers it. A similar consensus must be reached with regard to the future of National Qualifications.

There must be no repeat of the tragedies of Standard grade and Higher Still. ACfE must not descend into farce.

Peter Wright is vice-president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.

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