It's politicians who need to boldly go

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Radical reform of schools can only overcome the opponents of change if it has powerful friends, says Ian Smith

omeone told me recently that he reckoned Peter Peacock is the best Education Minister we have ever had. He had a point. Can you imagine Michael Forsyth supporting Assessment is for Learning, or introducing a document like A Curriculum for Excellence, or urging headteachers to be bold in their interpretation of it (TESS, January 27)?

In response to that, colleagues of mine remarked that headteachers should take him at his word, seize the day and invite their staff to declutter their own curriculum rather than wait for anyone to come and declutter it for them.

I think that is a great challenge to put to primary heads. However, even the boldest and most clear-sighted among them will need a lot of support to do it, not least from their local authority. It's a lot less feasible for secondary heads. One secondary teacher I talked to recently claimed to have inside information that an S1-S3 science course had been mooted. He was appalled at the thought, particularly since he was under the impression it would not be subject to external examination.

It was a weird conversation because, without knowing anything about what is being proposed, just the previous day I had drafted the following paragraphs:

"It's in the secondary sector that we really need to be bold. What if a secondary head decided to take the minister at his word and that to deliver the four 'excellence capacities' the school needed to be more like a good primary school? He or she might enlist the support of the primary heads in the cluster to set up a flexible curriculum in the first three years of secondary.

"The school would no longer offer candidates for external examinations in these years. The curriculum would be joined-up and decluttered using the best of the existing S1-S2 course materials and ideas.

"Separate social subjects and sciences would go in S1 to S3 and much of the work would be carried out on a topic-based approach, each topic being designed to contribute to the development of the four key capacities of the curriculum for excellence rather than as a preparation for examinations later on. Courses would be rigorous and challenging, linked to the real world and with progression built in.

"Assessment would be mainly formative and carried out internally by teachers and pupils themselves, who would work in teams a large part of the time. Summative assessment would have its place and would focus on the 'four capacities'. Pupils would receive a learning community certificate at the end of S3 which would outline what they had achieved and would put strong emphasis on the progress they had made over the previous three years."

That's what I call bold. But I'm sure the majority of you who have bothered to read this far would call it either foolhardy or pie in the sky. You would be right. Any head attempting to even consider such a scenario would not get past the first paper they wrote or the first meeting they held.

If they did, they would face the combined opposition of everyone you can possibly imagine. And, of course, they would find themselves firmly rooted at the bottom of media league tables each year.

We know from recent issues of The TES Scotland that those who are being bold with curriculum flexibility in secondary, whether at school or authority level, are going in the opposite direction. They are considering putting pupils through national examinations, whether Standard grade, Access or Intermediate, earlier. In other words, they are doing the job that gives secondary schools their real rationale - sorting out the sheep from the goats, or the "less academic" from the "more academic".

Keir Bloomer, now Clackmannanshire Council's chief executive, questioned more than 15 years ago why we need national examinations at the age of 16 when most young people stay on at school or college where they can get qualifications that employers actually pay attention to. He has never been given a satisfactory answer.

The teacher I referred to earlier, excellent professional though he appeared to be, could not see how a secondary school could motivate pupils without external examinations. This is the only explanation we seem to be able to come up with for the dip in performance and motivation in S1-S2.

For me, this neatly illustrates why our secondary schools need radical reform that involves later rather than earlier national certification.

That's the direction politicians must boldly lead us in. Neither headteachers nor local authorities could travel in that direction on their own, even if they wanted to. Powerful national vested interests in qualification authorities and universities would need to be taken on and both parents and pupils won over.

Politicians are led by public opinion, leaders influence it. If "the best Scottish Education Minister ever" can't do it, who can?

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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