The new curriculum's form must not override its function

20th April 2012 at 01:00
Don't let the debate around the 2+2+2 formula stunt the development of this changed educational landscape

Bruce Robertson's recent article, "Our educational system is far too resistant to change" (TESS, 30 March), challenged educators to be creative and seize the opportunity that Curriculum for Excellence has afforded us. So it is disappointing to see that the level of strategic thinking being promoted in some quarters at present is based on a preferred sequence of numbers, rather than considering how to improve educational outcomes for all young people.

We embarked on Curriculum for Excellence partly because the national debate in 2002 flagged up that the secondary curriculum was fragmented, content-heavy and fundamentally no longer fit for purpose. Debates that focus on adapting formations around "2+2+2" do not effectively respond to this challenge.

To be fair, it is not unusual in a time of uncertainty for those at the centre of the change process to set a context using what is trusted and known. Hence the timetable debates around subjects and numbers of courses in senior phase.

Changing the education system has often been compared to the turning of a famous ship, which is marking its centenary at present. It is essential that the opportunity for radical change is not lost in a wrangle over how to rearrange the deck chairs in a 2+2+2 or 3+3 formation. Otherwise, like that great ship, the senior phase curriculum may end up not reaching its destination and the casualties will be our young people in Scotland.

I am still confident that there will be no iceberg that scuppers our ultimate progress, because we have high-quality staff in our schools and educational services around the country who want to make a positive difference to the lives of all young people.

In Falkirk, as in most authorities, our senior officers in education services (including myself) and school management teams have been in extensive debate about how best to deliver a broad general education leading to a senior phase curriculum that meets the needs of our young people.

That debate has certainly covered structures, as we recognise that some form of modelling courses and programmes is essential and needs to be formatted in a way that makes sense to all stakeholders, including parents, elected members and our community. But it is clear from our discussions that what lies beneath the structures is what really matters.

In relation to the broad general education, for example, whether there are electives or personalisation at S1, or indeed no choice until S3, is less important than designing the educational outcomes within and across subjects to deliver the principles described in Building the Curriculum 3 (BTC3).

In the senior phase, we, like other authorities, are considering options and courses and how these can best be managed. The debate, however, is not centred on: "we want eight and will not wait". Rather, it is about how we deliver the most suitable pathways for our young people to assist them in moving successfully to their next destination.

This requires a highly varied range of courses and programmes which may be academic, skills-based or, indeed, vocationally-directed. Our schools cannot deliver all of these opportunities independently and, as a consequence, part of our senior-phase work is about forging close partnerships between those involved in delivering learning across the council (and wider) - including higher and further education, community learning and development, the employment training unit, business, and the third and voluntary sectors.

The ability to have such dialogue with partners and begin to integrate the range of educational provision available post-15 is an exciting one. My experience is that it brings energy and enthusiasm from all quarters, as the scale of opportunity is increasingly realised.

This type of bottom-up, integrated partnership approach to the design of senior phase is what the media should be sending their reporters out to investigate and report upon - not whether someone will study six, seven, or indeed eight National courses in the way they always have.

I have not commented in detail about the additional innovative priorities that are woven across all elements of Curriculum for Excellence, such as the GIRFEC agenda (Getting It Right For Every Child), the emphasis on health and well-being, new research-based active literacy initiatives and the re-energised emphasis on an integrated early years intervention strategy. All of these priorities, like BTC3, lie underneath the superficial structures that presently dominate debate.

A former director (now retired) once said to me that "form should always follow function". The present form of number sequences describing the senior phase actually gives no clue as to the functions lying underneath. We should be relaxed about this, however, because, like the skin of a caterpillar, once Curriculum for Excellence properly completes a cycle, it will shed its old form and spread its wings.

Of course, if the new National courses, when published, emulate their predecessors and simply measure the regurgitation of content rather than assessing skills, attitudes and knowledge, that might spike the flight. We will, however, leave that story for another day.

Andrew Sutherland is director of education in Falkirk.

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