Subject boundaries must become more flexible to allow the S1-S2 curriculum to be modernised, says Douglas Weir.
THERE HAS been a surprising reaction to comments I made at the General Teaching Council's most recent meeting about the structure of the S1-S2 curriculum and its implications for teachers.
In the letters page of The TES Scotland and in my own institution there have been some who oppose the notion that pupils might perform better in the first two years of secondary if there were fewer discrete subjects taught by a smaller number of individual teachers. The opposition comes from two standpoints, namely that there is no evidence that the number of teachers is the cause of underperformance, and that this large number is essential to protect the foundations of teacher registration in Scotland.
I am not so blind as to believe that every secondary delivers the S1-S2 curriculum in the same way or that every primary 7 class meets only one adult in the course of the school week. My remarks (TESS, June 11) were less about whether there was one structure which would always produce good results and more about how the notion of registration can respond flexibly to changes in the curriculum.
The GTC debate started with the concept that integrating social subjects in S1-S2 was only acceptable if each contributing subject was taught by someone with full registration. This is not a new argument. Indeed it has been the cause of the collapse of contemporary social subjects at Standard grade.
My opposition to the traditionalists stems from two points of view. First, it is curious that one teacher can be entrusted with most of the curriculum in P7 but, a few months later, the S1 curriculum requires up to 20. Second, if the GTC is to remain credible and influential in maintaining high standards, it ought to be consistent in its attitude about who teachers what. It makes no sense to make a stand on the social subjects in S1-S2 but to turn a blind eye to other areas, such as social education guidance and cross-curricular courses, where no training or qualification is required.
My understanding, as a relative newcomer, is that the GTC acknowledges that change in the curriculum is continuous. New subjects emerge and old subjects adapt. When these changes occur, the GTC expects the new subjects to become registrable over time and the old subjects to keep up-to-date through continuing professional development.
Take media studies where, after many years of lobbying, all the stakeholders have agreed that teachers of media studies should have access to relevant teacher education and become registrable in respect of this subject. My only regret is that this process took so long and my hope is that similar developments can be dealt with more speedily.
While many of the emerging subjects are in the upper secondary, under Higher Still, there are changes in the lower secondary, under the 5-14 programme, which schools have been slower in acknowledging. But these too require a change of attitude to deliver the revised structure of the secondary curriculum.
If we are to follow the advice in the new Curricular Guidelines for the Secondary Stages we must reconsider the ways in which we encourage pupils to learn. The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum places curricular integration in S1-S2 before the case for individual subjects and uses the curricular areas of 5-14 as its building blocks. In these 5-14 areas one of the curricular frameworks is social subjects. The justification is that this puts more emphasis on the needs of the learner than on the self-interest of the subject teacher.
To succeed in achieving these goals we must therefore consider how best to deliver that social subjects agenda in S1-S2. If "providing pupils with sustained contact with a relatively small number of teachers" is a view which we share, then "there is considerable scope for the extension of integrated approaches".
Of course certain teachers of social subjects will argue that the curricular content in their subject is already integrative and that they, by virtue of being qualified in more than one of the constituent subjects, are capable of demonstrating the overlap and linkage between those areas of 5-14 environmental studies which become separate subjects in S3. These teachers might even go on to argue that unless the social subjects are presented separately in S1 and S2, how can pupils make an informed choice of S3 subjects.
To deal with all of these points would require more space than is available here. Beyond my concern to support the curriculum council guidelines, however, I am also concerned to address the changing nature of the teaching force in which an ever-decreasing number of teachers will be qualified in more than one subject.
From 2000, the new standards for entry to initial teacher education will lead to few students being eligible for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Secondary) in anything other than a single subject. So just when there is renewed pressure to increase the extent of social subjects integration in S1-S2, there will be fewer teachers with the background and training who feel capable of delivering such an integrated course.
There seems then to be only one solution. In science, the needs of general science are met by an additional course during the PGCE (Secondary) programme. The same should apply in the social subjects. Every student in the social subjects should have a course in integrated approaches to S1-S2 teaching and every serving teacher should have access to appropriate continuing professional development. That is surely better than subject specialists delivering a partially integrated course which retains the titles of the separate subjects.
Douglas Weir is dean of the faculty of education at Strathclyde University. He writes in a personal capacity.