Let's shrug off shadowy past

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

In 2002, the then Scottish Executive undertook the most extensive consultation ever on the state of school education through the "national debate" on education.

From the point of view of the curriculum, the existing features which people valued were: flexibility - no one argued for a more prescriptive national system; the combination of breadth and depth; the quality of teaching and supporting material; and the comprehensive principle.

People argued for changes which would: reduce over-crowding in the curriculum and make learning more enjoyable; connect the various stages of the curriculum from 3-18; achieve a better balance between "academic" and "vocational" subjects, including a wider range of experiences; equip young people with the skills for tomorrow's workforce; make sure that assessment and certification support learning; and allow more choice to meet the needs of individual young people.

Eight years on, it is of interest to reflect on progress. What is often missed by people who attack Curriculum for Excellence is that the responses to the national debate wanted to keep many aspects of our existing curriculum, while recognising that there was also a need to better prepare children for a changing world.

So much of the criticism directed towards CfE appears to suffer from a form of collective amnesia, where the original drivers for change have been conveniently forgotten.

Where implementation is at its most successful, I see a capacity to build on the traditional strengths of the Scottish system: hard work; a passion for learning; commitment to high standards; outstanding teaching; a growing intellectual ambition to stretch our children; and one other which has not been in evidence over the last 30 years in our schools - innovation.

Certainly, if we listen to observers from outwith Scotland, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a real lead in world education - yet it's as if there exists some self-destruct mechanism deep in the Scottish psyche which needs to undermine and attack anything which is vaguely aspirational.

These attacks appear to take on three forms. The first is characterised by those who select a singular aspect of CfE for which there may be reasonable grounds for informed critique. However, that is then extrapolated to attack everything under the banner of Curriculum for Excellence.

The second form of attack is from those who seek to represent the silent majority. In my experience, the real majority are those who support change.

The final category are those who claim to be "agnostic". They are probably even more corrosive, since their assumption is that we will judge the success of CfE once it has been completed. Yet, the reality is that CfE is a dynamic development and needs to be continually developing if it is truly to meet the needs of children in a society that is in itself ever- changing.

The bottom line is that no one is suggesting Curriculum for Excellence is a "fully formed" solution for Scotland's education system. No one I speak to suggests there are few things that need to improve. But I'd rather be where we are now than where we were before 2002, faced with a moribund curriculum, disconnected assessment systems, static levels of attainment, disempowered teachers and, most importantly, disengaged learners.

We stand on an exciting threshold but it needs more people to talk up the positives - without the need to preface their comment with an apology or qualifying statement. There is a risk that we go back to the mythical "promised land" of education that was pre-2002 - now that would be a disaster!

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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