New curriculum is a mess of pottage
My starting point in the Curriculum for Excellence debate had been moderate enthusiasm for the proposed changes. A secondary curriculum organised in two blocks (S1-3 and S4-6), seeking to make links across subject divides, and preparing young people for the worlds of work, citizenship and future learning, seemed admirable. By the end of a recent discussion on Building the Curriculum 3, my enthusiasm was severely dampened.
The time-scale, introduction in school year 2009-10, is absurd. More concerning are the underlying intellectual flaws. Every child and young person, it states, is entitled to expect their schooling to provide them with a "broad general education", including well-planned experiences and outcomes across all the curriculum areas from early years to S3.
Schools have struggled to resolve the problem of traditional broad general education leaving large cohorts, especially in S2, disengaged. To extend a curriculum not oriented to work, citizenship, future learning or individual success by an extra year, instead of pruning it, is a massive internal contradiction.
The move to an S1-3 curriculum and an S4-6 curriculum is welcome. The diktat against early presentations is questionable. The recent OECD report recognised that Scottish children from poorer communities are more likely to underachieve. While there is a case for less external assessment, empirical evidence suggests that one of the key stated aims of the new curriculum, raising attainment in areas of social deprivation, can be met by giving young people two bites at the qualifications cherry. A ban on early presentation, combined with a traditional, broad curriculum, hardly represents the personalisation and choice advocated by the OECD.
The proposals' most fundamental flaw is their fuzziness. A long list of desirable characteristics (some of which are mutually contradictory) seems to be preferred to brief, focused objectives. An example: "This planning should demonstrate the principles for curriculum design: challenge and enjoyment; breadth; progression; depth; personalisation and choice; coherence; relevance. Learning should be made available in a range of ways including interdisciplinary learning and a range of opportunities which ensure a broad approach, enabling, for example, a coherent understanding of environmental issues."
Such statements illustrate what I, and others initially well disposed to A Curriculum for Excellence, have been avoiding. It is gobbledegook. Reality requires some assessment of the balance between challenge and enjoyment (for some, learning multiplication tables can never be enjoyable) - the balance between depth and breadth.
Schools are being asked to implement a curriculum which emphasises rich learning. I take that to be learning which centres on such higher-order skills as analysis, evaluation and synthesis. What Bloom's taxonomy taught us was that the effective application of higher-order skills requires a command of the lower-order skills, of knowledge, understanding and application. Links in learning, across subjects is valid, but BTC3 sacrifices the hard knowledge base of traditional subjects for what, as yet, is a mess of pottage. It's time to pause.
Alex Wood is seconded headteacher of Tynecastle High in Edinburgh.