Nurturing the learners

31st March 2000 at 01:00
The new curriculum framework for primary schools must not trap them in

a strait-jacket, says Frank Adams

SOME 12 years ago I wrote an article expressing concerns about the lack of any "overt philosophy or rationale" for primary education in Michael Forsyth's new policy on curriculum and assessment. Later, the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum was given the task of producing a framework for the brave new world of curriculum definition and rational planning, but it was not allowed to indulge in airy-fairy speculation about why we might have a curriculum framework of any particular kind.

The prevailing Zeitgeist was described by The TES Scotland as akin to the numerical reordering of the balls in the (then) new National Lottery - it was "reducing the extent of change in a similar way. Just reorder the curriculum you are already teaching in accordance with the guidelines we give you, and lo and behold you will find you have been doing 5-14 all along."

New millennium, new guidelines. The curriculum council, apparently freed from the constraints of being midwife to the birth of the new curriculum, has sent out for consultation a revision of the 1993 guidance on structure and balance in the 5-14 curriculum, complete with a rationale for what is taught. For the first time since 1987, we can try to understand where 5-14 fits with ideas about primary education that have been developing in Scotland since the 1965 Memorandum.

Tom Bryce, a Strathclyde University professor, in commenting on the way in which the Scottish curriculum had developed since the Munn report in 1977, observed that the development had not been in any logical order. To a large extent the new proposed rationale for 5-14 suffers from the same problem: it seems to arise from the existing curriculum structures which have been developed over the past 20 years, from pre-five to Higher Still, perhaps more of a rationalisation than a rationale.

The result seems to be structure related rather than pupil related. You might be able to sit with a list of initiatives and check them off against the rationale: social inclusion, equality of opportunity, school ethos, core skills, parental involvement, information and communications technology, and find them all there in some form or other.

Official-speak still exists: for example: "A commitment to the environment will be engendered"; and "the foundation for specific core skills that are developed and validated in the later stages of secondary school". Yet there are also hints of voices attempting to push the rationale beyond a current issues checklist.

It is worth remembering that the curriculum council prouced a paper on Teaching for Effective Learning in 1996 which differed significantly from the curriculum mapping of the national guidelines. Teachers were encouraged to think about bigger issues like multiple abilities, potential and learning together. It pointed out that "learning is messy".

The new draft rationale has hints of this: "At its best the curriculum offers as many invitations to learn as it holds expectations of attainment"; "The curriculum must ensure pupils make connections and see links between what they learn and what they see in the wider world around them . . .

and across curriculum areas"; "Pupils learn effectively through teaching that is interactive and dynamic"; and, perhaps most importantly, "A positive school ethos . . . encourages the creativity and commitment of teachers."

Anything that helps teachers to rediscover their self-esteem and to confirm that creativity is allowed is to be welcomed in this world of competence statements for all stages of teacher development.

As well as a new rationale, the consultative document develops and extends our understanding of the key principles of 5-14. In particular, the principle of balance is revisited, perhaps in part in response to the ways in which the profession has itself shifted the balance of the curriculum to accommodate the more recent initiatives in early literacy and numeracy.

So the minimum time allocations are revised to legitimise current political and professional imperatives, and there is no feeling that the new rationale and the new balance are linked in any way. The rationale does not explore whether a primary school needs to be timetabled like a secondary school. The fact is that in many places it is is a response to pressure on schools to be accountable and to meet targets in particular areas of the curriculum.

The new exploration of balance accepts that schools might vary time allocations across stages or to meet specific school priorities, and that balance has to be thought about over a period of time: "Balance is not necessarily achieved on a week-to-week basis." More discussion of such ideas would be welcome.

Similarly, there is more about the principles of continuity and progression, and schools are encouraged to explore these as part of self-evaluation. If the new guidance begins to encourage schools to play an active part in creating the conditions that are best for learning in their own environment rather than to believe that there is only one way forward they will have done the profession a service.

Frank Adams is senior lecturer in educational theory and practice, Moray House Institute, Edinburgh University.

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