More evolution than revolution

4th September 2009 at 01:00

Keir Bloomer's article last week, offering "two cheers" for A Curriculum for Excellence, followed on neatly from Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop's article published a week earlier in these pages.

Both were concerned to trumpet the transformational nature of change associated with A Curriculum for Excellence and, in Keir's case at least, to question whether or not its high ambitions were likely to be achieved. It seems reasonable then to ask what is to be transformed.

Some of the answers to that question may appear obvious. The curriculum will not be defined in terms of content. There will not be the highly detailed specification of attainment targets. There will be far more scope for personalisation and choice. Importantly, full implementation will bring an assessment system that will reward the skills the curriculum purports to develop and offer credit for creativity and problem-solving in a way that the present system does not.

That will liberate teachers to offer more exciting learning opportunities and will transform teaching at key stages. Currently, most of us are guilty of getting caught up in revision and coaching in examination techniques as we approach assessments leading to certification. We try, as teachers, to give our students the best possible chance of gaining awards by subverting the assessment system. We "spot" questions and reduce risk, rather than encourage learning.

We know from past experience that, if we make changes in the assessment system, pedagogy changes, but will that be a transformational change? Arguably it won't; it will simply ensure better and more consistent practice across stages and schools. Such an argument suggests that there is more evolution than revolution in ACfE, that the best practice we see would take us very close to meeting the aspirations we have if only it was evident more consistently.

Like many of us, I have the privilege of seeing imaginative and creative teaching on a regular basis. This publication regularly delights with examples of such practice. We see the best of it in the Scottish Education Awards and on the websites dedicated to good practice. We see it reflected in many young people, at all stages in Scottish schools, who demonstrate the four capacities. They demonstrate a confidence that I never had at the same stage. They participate effectively in the management of their schools. They plan activities and expeditions, design experiments, test hypotheses and show energy and enthusiasm for voluntary activity in ways that would have been beyond me and many of my peers. They debate, challenge and create.

The best classrooms hum with activity and engagement. They are exciting places to be, as a learner or as an observer. Ms Hyslop captured much of this spirit in her TESS article. These teachers, who possess this spirit, do not need to be led; they need to be empowered. Colleagues who are not operating at this level need to be encouraged and supported to improve.

Staff development is key to this, but it needs to be supported by an assessment system which rewards that practice. If educators know that their students will have to demonstrate real thinking skills in order to make progress or gain certification, they will develop these skills. If they find that change beyond them, for whatever reason, they need to move on.

This is not transformation for all: it is improvement for all. What it can do is transform the lives of those young people who are not benefiting from the best practice. That is a prize worth pursuing. It can ensure that we are educating all our learners in a way that is fit for the 21st century. Is this not the vision that Keir and others seek?

It is one which emphasises the higher-order skills that all learners need to adapt in "a world of unprecedented promise and threat": one which takes young people from where they are, by identifying their needs and strengths, to where they need to be to meet the challenges they face and the choices they make. Tapestry, the organisation which Keir chairs, provides a powerful template for that vision by drawing together the best of international research with the highest standards of practice from our schools. I believe that we have that high-level vision. It is there in Journey to Excellence and in the commitment to More Choices, More Chances.

In this light, we can see Building the Curriculum 3 and the experiences and outcomes for what they are - helpful supports for achieving the larger ambitions on which Keir and Fiona resolutely focus. They also offer reassurance to those who have clamoured for more specificity around A Curriculum for Excellence.

The rallying cry previously was that this new initiative was too ill- defined and that there was too much vision and not enough detail. Indeed, there are still those who would argue for greater elaboration of the experiences and outcomes. I assume that many of these colleagues have never worked their way through the full set or they would have little appetite for their expansion. It has been a difficult balancing act to maintain the confidence of those who sought direction and those who were ready to embrace the possibilities that this offered for enhanced professionalism.

I would not argue that every aspect has been perfect and would accept that there are lessons to be learned from the experience we have had and the steps we have taken. This is part of the nature of this development: it is not prescribed, as others have been. It allows the needs of the learners to drive its final implementation in classrooms, and it allows the vision of educators to shape it.

I remain convinced that we have a real opportunity to create a modern curriculum and a modern profession. If we only deserve two cheers at this point, we should be ready with the third as we move closer to realising the consistent standards that we all seek.

David Cameron is president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. He replies to Keir Bloomer's critique, in our series on the new curriculum.

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