How do we stretch the curriculum?

21st January 2005 at 00:00
The recent edict on reform is briefer than Munn but faces the same challenges, says Gordon Kirk

The 1977 Munn report on the S3-S4 curriculum initiated a programme of national curriculum development on an unprecedented scale, and was followed in turn by the even more ambitious 5-14 and Higher Still development programmes. In October last year, the report of the curriculum review group appeared, together with the ministerial response, both declaring a commitment to A Curriculum for Excellence from 3 to 18. To what extent has the curriculum debate moved forward in the intervening years?

There are certainly some striking differences between Munn and its recent counterpart. The first concerns their scope. On Munn, we interpreted our remit as guaranteeing all S3-S4 pupils access to their educational entitlement. We saw ourselves as providing the curriculum framework which realised the educational aims of the comprehensive school, and those of us on the drafting subcommittee assumed we were contributing to a tradition of critical debate on the curriculum.

A Curriculum for Excellence is not that kind of document. It was expected to focus on "the purposes of education 3-18 and the principles of design for the curriculum". Adhering to that remit, it lists with minimum elaboration or justification the core values that must be embedded and identifies four central purposes of education: to cultivate "successful learners", "confident individuals", "responsible citizens" and "effective contributors".

The report briefly sets out the conditions that are thought to be necessary for the full realisation of these four capacities and, with equal brevity, it describes the seven principles that should govern curricular design: challenges and enjoyment; breadth; progression; depth; personalisation and choice; coherence; and relevance.

These values, capacities and design principles will surely resonate strongly with the educational and the wider community in Scotland and elsewhere. They are strongly congruent with the aims and curriculum rationale developed by Munn. However, the presentation of the review group's findings is much less discursive than Munn's, presumably because the group was not concerned to elaborate a thesis. Perhaps the only rhetorical flourish is the report's title, but that is a piece of vacuous spin and should fool no one.

There is a second difference. The publication of the Munn report was followed by a six-month period of consultation before ministers decided how the combined Munn-Dunning package was to be implemented, after feasibility studies and piloting of various kinds. In this case, the simultaneous appearance of the review group's report and the Education Minister's acceptance of its findings "in full" elides the professional and the political stages of decision-making. Why should the minister endorse the report without testing its professional and public acceptability through a consultation process?

A third obvious difference is that, whereas Munn was mainly concerned with the S3-S4 curriculum and was followed by two further development programmes which dealt with different phases of schooling, this curriculum review took the whole 3-18 curriculum as its province. It identifies the values that should permeate the curriculum, proposing a set of criteria that, if consistently applied, will strengthen continuity and progression across those years, particularly at those transition points that currently prove to be so disruptive.

But, for all its merits, the review group's report contains the seeds of tensions that have bedevilled curriculum planning over the years. The determination to streamline the curriculum, presumably by eliminating whatever is incompatible with the four core capacities and, in the process, sending 5-14 into reverse in a great bout of "decluttering", is commendable. Such a strategy is intended to create more time for teachers to use their resourcefulness in the management of pupils' learning.

Pleasing as this is, for every teacher who welcomes the opportunity to exploit the less prescriptive regime, one wonders how many will continue to draw attention to the pressures of "workload".

There are predictable difficulties in translating some of the group's design principles into an actual programme of study. The Munn committee was greatly exercised by the principle of choice. It acknowledged that, for sound educational, motivational and vocational reasons, pupils should have significant scope to choose which studies to pursue. However, it also accepted that there were overwhelming reasons for requiring all pupils to undertake those studies that were essential to a balanced education. A reconciliation of the two principles was sought in the "core plus options" model, with provision for some choice also in the core.

The review group strongly endorses the principle of choice and the need to "personalise" the curriculum. However, there is also a commitment to breadth of study, and that is elaborated at one point as "environmental, scientifictechnological, historical, social, economic, political, mathematical and linguistic contexts, the arts, culture and sports". That encompasses a remarkably wide range of studies, and curriculum designers will need to be highly ingenious in securing such a degree of curricular coverage, while at the same time protecting the principle of choice.

There is a similar tension between breadth and depth. One of the perennial problems is to decide where the line should be drawn between the cultivation of strengths through more specialised study and the elimination of weaknesses or gaps in a pupil's education. Even if there is extensive decluttering of the curriculum, there is a very great deal that will require to be covered if the principle of breadth is to be taken seriously.

In addressing such issues, curriculum planners will be obliged to revisit the same battleground of conflicting priorities where Munn raised its standard.

There is one area where more progress might have been expected. There is ample evidence that many young people pursue lifestyles that are characterised by drug abuse, under-age sex, criminal activity, obesity and poor diet - to rehearse a familiar litany. They desperately need stronger support from the school. The Munn committee was not prepared to give greater priority to what I now call lifestyle education and that is why there was a note of reservation in my name.

It is regrettable that, despite the accumulating evidence of personal and social malaise, the review group was not able to give this area a bigger push. There is as strong a case for lifestyle skills as there is for "skills for work". Had I been a member, I would therefore have been obliged to enter broadly the same note of reservation, even if, as I suspect, it had to be severely truncated.

Gordon Kirk was formerly dean of the faculty of education at Edinburgh University.

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