Parents' perspectives on CfE are varied and valid
What's the parents' perspective on Curriculum for Excellence? When it comes to CfE there is no "average" parent, or even a "general" level of engagement and enthusiasm. As a parents' organisation with members all over Scotland, we know there is no one view among the parents we are working with.
Indeed, the level of understanding - and enthusiasm - for the new curriculum is probably as varied as that within the teaching profession. On one hand are the early adopters who have bought into the principles of CfE and are impatient with the pace of progress towards implementation. At the other end of the spectrum are those parents whose knowledge and understanding are at low levels and for whom, quite naturally, change is a worrying thing. In between the two exists every shade of opinion and corresponding levels of confidence.
The debate around communication with parents on CfE has run and run - and will continue to do so until the new curriculum has bedded in. As an organisation, the SPTC has been vocal in highlighting the issues: language which is meaningless to most parents; vague and woolly explanations; often poor communication between school and parents - the result, we believe, of low levels of confidence in the teaching profession and lack of leadership and courage at school and local authority level. Given that most parents look to their child's school for information, this latter point is most serious.
Not only has communication been poor in many cases, it has also been handled in quite peculiar ways. More than one parent council has told us of a CfE "information meeting" where no questions were allowed - in other words, sit quietly and listen, but don't put us under any pressure with difficult questions.
Given this background, it's hardly surprising that there is confusion and concern, particularly in relation to the new qualifications.
Even in the face of this, most parents we talk to are supportive of CfE: they understand the need for change and welcome a more flexible approach that will support their child to do their best. Of course, qualifications are important - in fact we've become conditioned to exam passes being the only scale by which school success is measured - and they are the passport young people need to progress into work, further and higher education.
However, we know our current qualifications system is producing young people with apparently high attainment who have very poor literacy and communication skills. Let's leave aside (if we can) the many young people who leave schools functionally illiterate: we hear regularly from employers who say our school (and indeed, college or university) leavers do not have the soft skills, creativity and flexibility they are looking for. I would argue that these facts alone tell us that our qualifications (in fact our education system) are not serving our society well.
Yes, we want our young people to be well qualified but we need them to be literate and numerate, to have the capacity to take responsibility for their own learning and to have a deep, not superficial, understanding of what they learn.
The narrative around the introduction of the new National qualifications has generated a great deal of heat over the past six months, but maybe not much light. SPTC has been very vocal in its argument that the tension has been caused to a great extent by those schools and local authorities who have retained the 2+2+2 structure in secondary school, which sees the new S3s now studying for qualifications that are not going to be taken until 2014. A lack of confidence in CfE, being thirled to the familiar, a reluctance to really shift practice: local authorities, headteachers and also, in some cases, parents bear the responsibility.
We argue that the introduction of CfE in some secondary schools has become little more than a timetabling exercise, sometimes caused by adherence to the 160 hours per National course guidance. The result is that a key issue for parents in some areas is subject reduction, limiting access to qualifications. Parents naturally feel their child is missing out, when the promise of CfE was more flexibility and personalisation.
Education Scotland's recent CfE briefing on the Broad General Education in the Secondary School goes some way - but not far enough - towards challenging local authorities to embrace the principles behind the BGE and to shift to a model that opens up opportunities rather than restricting choice. It's going to be a challenge to develop a model that doesn't simply create a double dash for fewer subjects, towards S4 National exams and S5 Highers. For parents and their children, that feels to us like lose, lose.
So here's an idea: pupils choose up to eight subjects at the end of S3 and work towards either Highers or Nationals (or a combination of both) to be taken at the end of S5. The result would be depth, breadth, flexibility and personalisation. There are other advantages, too: English, maths and some kind of language learning could continue to 16, which is common practice in much of Europe. S6 would be for Advanced Highers or adding qualifications or wider achievement - whatever suits individual pupils.
Of course, there would be mixing of ages, a great deal of organisational change and adaption needed by staff, pupils and parents, but it could be done. It would also take courage, creativity and vision on the part of education leaders. In truth, these three capacities are needed, whatever the model, to create real change for the benefit of our young people.
This article includes input from a number of parents who have contributed their thinking to SPTC
Eileen Prior, Executive director, Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC).