Pandora opens her box of tricks

14th January 2005 at 00:00
The curriculum review group has reported. But what happens now? Neil Munro finds out

The programme board that aims to put flesh on the bones of the Scottish Executive's curriculum review has its second meeting in 10 days' time, its remit being to achieve "continuity and radicalism". This tall order has been entrusted to the board under the chairmanship of Maggi Allan, the retiring education director in South Lanarkshire.

Mrs Allan sees no contradiction. "We have to ensure that we don't destabilise the curriculum, not least because there are youngsters in the system now," she told The TES Scotland in her first interview since taking on the job.

"On the other hand, the Education Minister's agenda is a radical agenda; it's an agenda for change. So the message has to be that the status quo is not an option."

Mrs Allan acknowledges that "it could be our Achilles' heel" if people came to believe that the reforms were disadvantaging learners and creating a fear of change in the system.

She sees her group as having a "permissive rather than prescriptive" role.

It will none the less have authority to direct projects and it has already has a set of key priorities, to be overtaken by 2007 - "decluttering" the primary curriculum by reducing content, revamping the 3-18 science curriculum, overhauling the S1-S3 curriculum and promoting skills for work courses for 14-16s.

These different tasks will not be dispatched to their own isolated silos, Executive officials stress. The primary curriculum, science programmes and the shape of S1-S3 cannot be treated in isolation from each other, they point out.

Having moved on the key priorities, it is likely the board will then turn its attention to other areas to ensure everything is aligned with the purposes of the curriculum, which were set out by the review group and accepted by ministers. This constitutes the new mantra that schools must turn out pupils who are "successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society and at work".

Mrs Allan is also keen that there must be a wider recognition of pupil achievements than the traditional exam regime allows. This could take account of what they have done in S2-S3 as well as extra-curricular, community and other work.

"The challenge, of course, is to come up with something that will have currency with employers, is not bureaucratic and doesn't add to teachers'

burdens," Mrs Allan says. She suggests that pupils could be made responsible for recording their own achievements, in much the same way as teachers are encouraged to maintain a continuing professional development portfolio.

The whole enterprise is, as Mrs Allan acknowledges, "a huge agenda for change". Previous attempts at curricular reform - Brunton, Munn, 5-14, National Certificate modularisation, Higher Still - were confined to particular stages of schooling. This one leaves no stage untouched.

The Executive is, however, keen to point out that its agenda of "continuity and radicalism" will not produce an unfamiliar landscape. Many of the building blocks are in place - the early years curriculum is regarded by officialdom as "strong", the notion of the 5-14 curriculum is embedded and subjects will remain as the foundation of the secondary stages.

None the less, a key task of the programme board will be a "scoping" one - how to do it? Mrs Allan says this may take the form of setting up working groups to look at the initial priorities, for example, or treat the implementation as a series of particular themes such as transition (from pre-school to primary, primary to secondary, secondary to further education).

However it approaches the work, the board does plan to establish "sounding boards", Mrs Allan revealed. This will involve consultations with teachers, employers, parents - and young people themselves.

She also sets considerable store by communicating what the group is up to, and a strategy outlining how this might be done is being drawn up by Bernard McLeary, chief executive of Learning and Teaching Scotland, who is a member of the programme board. "It is important to have a communications strategy so that we're not seen to be disappearing into a room to emerge, Rip van Winkle-like, in 2007," Mrs Allan comments.

While 2007 is the target date for overtaking some of the key priorities, ministers have accepted that the initial phase represents a 10-year programme. But a key passage in their response to the review group suggests that change will be a constant.

The current review will not be "a once and for all task", the Education Ministers have stated, and there will have to be "a continuing cycle of evaluation, refreshment and renewal".

"The big challenge," Mrs Allan says, "is to change the way people think about secondary education in particular. We tend to think of it as pupils moving about in age cohorts of 20-30 pupils.

"But if we adopt personalised planning and personal learning, together with the removal of the age and stage restrictions, perceptions will change.

"That will then raise questions about how we organise secondary education, which involves a recognition that not all learning will take place in schools."

The curriculum will also be expected to comply with a set of seven principles set out in the review group's report. These are challenge and enjoyment, breadth, progression, depth, personalisation and choice, coherence and relevance.

Reconciling these, particularly the age-old tension between curricular breadth and student choice, will be no easy task. But schools and the inspectorate have at least now begun to wrestle with what flexibility in teaching and professional autonomy for teachers actually mean.

As one senior figure put it: "The important thing is to build on where schools are, developing their own practice against a set of national expectations. This is what intelligent accountability is all about."

It's in their hands now

The curriculum programme board consists of:

* Maggi Allan, education director in South Lanarkshire (chair)

* Isabel Bolton, head of Kingswells primary in Aberdeen

* Colin Brown, head of the Scottish Executive Education Department's curriculum branch

* Anton Colella, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority

* George MacBride, Educational Institute of Scotland education convener

* Julie McCallum, SEED curriculum branch

* Chris McIlroy, HMI

* Mary McLaughlin, headteacher of Notre Dame High in Glasgow

* Bernard McLeary, chief executive of Learning and Teaching Scotland

* David Raffe of Edinburgh University

* Kate Reid, education director in West Lothian

* Gill Robinson, head of the SEED qualifications, assessment and curriculum division

Successful learners

* use literacy, communication and numeracy skills

* use technology for learning

* think creatively and independently

* learn independently and as part of a group

* make reasoned evaluations

* apply different kinds of learning in new situations Confident individuals

* relate to others and manage themselves

* pursue a healthy and active lifestyle

* are self-aware

* develop and communicate their own beliefs

* live as independently as they can

* assess risk and take informed decisions

* achieve success Responsible citizens

* develop knowledge and understanding of the world and Scotland's place in it

* understand different beliefs and cultures

* make informed choices and decisions

* evaluate environmental, scientific and technological issues

* develop informed, ethical views of complex issues Effective contributors

* communicate in different ways and different settings

* work in teams

* take the initiative and lead

* apply critical thinking in new contexts

* create and develop

* solve problems

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