New 'hands-off' approach hinders less able

10th December 2010 at 00:00
Study conducted at Monifieth High, a `trailblazer' in implementing CfE, reveals concerns over inclusion

Cross-curricular working - one of the central tenets of Curriculum for Excellence - could be putting less able pupils at a disadvantage because of the inherently more "hands-off" nature of the teaching involved.

The warning comes in an evaluation by Stirling University researchers, who studied one of the secondary schools identified as a "trailblazer" in implementing the new curriculum, Monifieth High in Angus.

As a result of their findings, academics Eric Easton and Mark Priestley have called for further research into the impact of the new methodologies involved in CfE on pupils who are "educationally disadvantaged".

Monifieth High has been praised by many, including Government ministers, for its success as an "early adopter" of CfE. It introduced the new curriculum for its S1 pupils last year. But the school invited the Stirling University team to give an objective evaluation of what had contributed to its successful implementation and what had been its barriers.

The report by Dr Easton and Dr Priestley finds that strong leadership and an enhanced level of professional dialogue lie at the heart of that success.

Nevertheless, teachers who took part in focus groups for the research - from a probationer to a deputy head - were "particularly exercised" by a couple of "problematic areas" and spent a "substantial time" discussing them. One was inclusion.

They were particularly worried that pupils could be disadvantaged by the "hands off" nature of the teaching, the reduced support and fewer opportunities for consolidation, said the report.

The high level of literacy required to research independently and contribute to group work was also a concern, it continued.

One teacher commented the "ones at the top" were "relishing" CfE but admitted to being worried about the "ones in the middle" and "the less able".

The teacher said: "I've seen them in different subjects and they're getting the same sort of work, the same sort of group work, the same sort of independent learning and I think, `you're not learning anything'."

Another teacher commented that the less able were not getting the same support as they did when it was "much more traditional teaching" and were being "left to their own devices". They were suffering because there was no longer the "step-by-step focus on content" or the same level of "reinforcement" or "support".

Terry Lanagan, who represents the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland on the CfE management board, said this was the first time that such concerns had been raised, as far as he was aware.

"Schools who have been `early adopters' have reported a greater degree of engagement by pupils," said Mr Lanagan.

But the implications of any such research had to be looked at very carefully, he acknowledged.

Larry Flanagan, education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland, who also sits on the CfE management board, said the report raised some significant issues for further reflection.

He was unfamiliar with the school's specific approach but acknowledged that staff had committed a lot of time and creative energy to the curriculum offered.

"It's important to recognise that interdisciplinary work necessitates the initial presence of disciplines and is essentially concerned with creating cohesion in the curriculum so that pupils can see the connections and transfer skills across subject boundaries. It's more than just multi- disciplinary project work," he said.

He would be concerned if the observation about some pupils being less supported than previously proved to be well-founded.

"Active learning approaches do not prohibit differentiation or individual support. Neither is CfE about saying that more traditional didactic teaching should not be part of a balance of approaches."

Monifieth High headteacher Richard Coton commented: "Curriculum for Excellence is about inclusion, it's about personalisation and the worth of the individual. But with any new approach you have to test that against inclusion and if you don't get that quite right, you have to work at it. This is a timely reminder and I am pleased that staff are aware and are thinking: `are all the kids getting what they need?'"


The Stirling University researchers identified the three main drivers of Monifieth High's success as:

- an enhanced level of professional dialogue among staff;

- a strong senior management team who are critically engaged with CfE and committed to collegial working;

- and a school staff which values creativity, curricular engagement and professional autonomy.

When staff spoke about CfE, it was evident they had "an implicit understanding of it". Only after three hours of discussion were the more obvious features, such as the four capacities, mentioned. Instead, the focus of discussions was on pedagogy.

Teachers described the much-criticised vagueness of the outcomes and experiences as an advantage.

Even the staffroom cynics were declining in number.

"The culture of anti-intellectualism, viewed as common in Scottish staffrooms, was declining within the school and teachers felt increasingly confident about reflecting on their practice with colleagues," the report stated.

Some teachers attributed this change to the high number of chartered teachers both trained and in training in the school; others felt it was because co-operative learning training had given them a common language.

Barriers were identified as a loss of capacity among teachers for curriculum development; the competing philosophies of CfE and the current SQA exams; and some inertia towards change from older teachers.

Inclusion was defined as a "problematic area" in the report but one that neither promoted nor inhibited change. Teacher identity and the problems that could arise because of over-identification with subject was another "problematic area".

  • Original headline: New `hands-off' approach hinders less able, say academics

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