No simple solution to the senior phase

5th November 2010 at 00:00

I recently heard George Smuga, former head at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, and Calum MacSween, head at Charleston Academy in Inverness, speak on the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence. Their theme was that different schools required different solutions. Diversity and flexibility are the new watchwords.

I'm not convinced. They offered different timetable models which essentially delivered quite different curricula.

George's model was based on nine three-hour teaching blocks in a week. That would pose some major challenges to the attention span of a fair number of S4s. It also assumed that many students would enter S4 to work on two-year Higher courses with no, or few, qualifications taken in S4. That, of course, was the case until the early 1960s when the O-grade, previously a qualification for those who were not proceeding to Highers, became the ubiquitous first-level certificate.

There are two major problems. Firstly, parental pressure, seemingly irresistible, tends to want fall-back qualifications. "Let him do the subject at National 5 in S4 - just in case he fails the Higher in S5." The urge to accumulate qualifications drives parents. The need to top league tables drives many schools, and allowing a significant cohort not to pursue qualifications in S4 would certainly put the kibosh on that. This may be a good reason to adopt it but, if local authorities find it hard to resist parental pressure, how much harder will they find it to resist the media clamouring for data to support its simplistic, annual analysis and comparison of schools?

My other fear is that as the combination of demographics and parental choice reduces student numbers, and therefore staff numbers, in many urban secondaries, the capacity to deliver this high-quality curriculum will become limited. George Smuga suggested that a campus consortium arrangement, such as that being operated in West Lothian, could overcome these problems. Youngsters may move for parts of their timetables between schools in West Lothian (both my daughters did precisely that, pursuing a Higher that was not delivered at their local school).

Such a scenario is much less likely in the metropolitan centres. Firstly, territoriality means that many youngsters will not travel out of their safety zones. That may be regrettable, but it is reality. Secondly, social pressures, from parents primarily, will mean that the movement between schools will be either among middle-class schools or from the schools in the poorer communities to the more middle-class schools.

The danger of diversity is that, almost unnoticed we will return to a selective system. Some schools will offer an intellectual and highly- challenging academic curriculum, catering for the bulk of their learners' needs - but not for them all. Another cohort of schools will develop vocational options, alternative curricula, an emphasis on citizenship, but with fewer academic options, catering for the bulk of their learners' needs - but, again, not for all.

The purpose of Curriculum for Excellence was never to return to a socially-divided schools system. Although not genuinely meritocratic, our old selective system, based on the dreaded quali, had at least some spurious rationale. Selection based on where children live and parental choice has no rationale. If diversity makes the great divide unbridgeable, I'm for a bit of social engineering and central planning.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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