At last a chance to enjoy learning
It is a genuine honour to be asked to serve on the Scottish Executive's curriculum review steering group. As a former sociology of education lecturer, it will give me an opportunity to "ply my trade" again.
More important for the further education sector, it is another recognition that we may have a positive contribution to make on important matters of national interest. It is another recognition of the new parity for colleges this Executive has promoted.
It is fair to say that Peter Peacock, Education Minister, has espoused this new parity in his previous two portfolios. Two jobs ago he took cognisance of the views of FE professionals in relation to the national digital inclusion strategy and in his last job he took soundings of our views on the national regional policy debate on life after European structural funds.
Let's be fair - when it comes to the 3-18 curriculum the FE sector deserves this recognition. We are responsible for the majority of childcare education, we play a substantial role in the training of our own teaching staff and we have relentlessly been at the bleeding edge of curriculum innovation and change for 20 years. A large majority of us are also parents of school pupils.
Like me, many of the sector's senior managers were at school, or just leaving, when the famous Munn and Dunning discussions were first mooted.
Some of my colleagues would argue that the 3-18 review, 30 years on, is the final piece in the Munn and Dunning jigsaw. Yet further education delivered the 16-18 action plan in three years and has reinvented itself two or three times over the same period as well as dealing with incorporation, local pay bargaining and a new funding master.
It is quite likely, though, that the review group will finish its business with more questions than answers. As the group looks to the future it might want to reflect on some of the big curriculum questions which our sector has addressed in the past decade.
The "who?" questions have led the college sector to consider if the lecturer should be wholly responsible for the curriculum and the learning process. Just as the primary school is now populated by classroom assistants will the future curriculum for 3-18 or beyond require tutor specialists, assessors, verifiers and facilitators in greater numbers?
The "what?" questions have led FE to consider the balance between formal and informal learning, between qualifications led and free-standing provision perhaps aimed at progression or playing a specific social or economic role.
We have had to consider how core skills integrate with other parts of the curriculum and whether there are curriculum areas, like modern languages, entrepreneurship, or even first aid, that should be mandatory parts of the learning programmes. Should schools be any different?
The "where?" questions have led us to consider whether the curriculum is delivered on one site or whether the concept of multi-site learning experiences doesn't automatically promote better learning. It is difficult to dispute the fact that trips, placements, simulations and work trials enhance the student experience. The affordability of such elements may only exist when institutions share the costs. For the past few years, too, colleges have been immersed in estates strategies. Should headteachers be receiving staff development on how to construct a business case?
The "when?" questions have proved to be similarly demanding. Colleges now tend to open all day and most weekends. They are well used, if not jam-packed, during vacations and many now operate semesters. In terms of the student population we now deliver to all ages with very little curricular differentiation based on age. Our sector can identify a seamless learning continuum. Is this possible, or legal, in the 3-18 context?
The "how?" questions have led the college sector to consider the balance between teaching and learning. Efficiencies are now generated by promoting widespread open, flexible and electronic learning in both specific programmes and in standard curricula. The level of independent and self-directed study in further education is now extensive. The schools sector should be no different from FE in addressing the need to introduce e-learning appropriately. It may, for example, assist in reducing the negative effects of both absenteeism and truancy.
And then there are the "why?" questions. Are we promoting learning for personal purposes, for qualifications and academic progression, for access to the workplace or to enhance promotion prospects? The post-school curriculum - and any other - should be able to boast an element of all of these and more.
Earlier in my career, I never tired of telling students that an education system cannot compensate for the inequalities and ills of any society. I still believe this but I am also willing to accept that a fundamental review of the curriculum provides an opportunity to make a difference to everyone's life chances - especially if the learning experience is not retarded by old buildings, unreasonable assessment pressures, old technology, lack of logical co-ordination or reference to context.
I would like to see this review rise to the challenge and consider a new learning paradigm which goes beyond the administrative ease of subjects and stresses that choice and opportunity can be widened without compromising our standards. Most of all, though, I would like to see all 21st century Scottish young people given a chance to enjoy learning.
I'm ready to do my bit for that cause.
Graeme Hyslop is principal of Langside College in Glasgow and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. If you would like to comment - as an FE professional or as a parent - on the issues that should be brought to the attention of the curriculum review steering group contact him at email@example.com.