Platform: Schools must have a coherent curriculum

11th December 1998 at 00:00
When the draft guidance came out in August on what we should teach young people between the ages of 11 and 18, the dominant feeling in the staffroom was relief that no major changes were proposed. But although the consultation period has now ended, I cannot let it pass without speaking out, since silence is taken for consent . . . and I do not consent.

I help each year to make a badly designed secondary framework work better than it should. But I do not give my consent to it. Its intellectual and practical incoherence does as much as anything in the Scottish system to inhibit attainment and make teachers' jobs more difficult.

The broad message of this document from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum is: what is, is good. But "what is" relies on a discontinuous model of the secondary school curriculum. The incoherence of the terminology (curriculum areas for S1-S2, subjects, modes) alone causes problems.

Subjects, the document states, have traditionally been the principal components of the curriculum. Perhaps as importantly, and certainly in terms of curriculum management, they are also the principal vehicle by which the academic and professional competence of teachers is assessed, the means through which their accreditation is enforced by the General Teaching Council. They provide the framework for most teamwork in the secondary school, the basis of national certification at 16 and beyond and the major route for career development.

For the curriculum manager they are far more than components, although they are certainly that. The document states: "The concept of curricular modes or areas has evolved to provide a means of grouping subjects into distinctive categories of knowledge and ideas." Wait a minute. Modes, I seem to remember, did not evolve but were justified in the Munn report (1977) as an intermediate category beyond subjects to help ensure breadth and balance at S3-S4.

The term "curriculum areas" was defined in the 5-14 framework document arising out of previous primary school practice, without reference to Munn.So we have not one concept and one means of grouping subjects, but two different concepts arising from different pedagogy and epistemology.

A further barrier is the maintenance of three secondary stages, each using different curriculum descriptions, each measuring progression in different ways, each requiring different things of schools. Because we make 5-14, Standard grade and Highermodular courses (soon to be Higher Still) fit together, we should not forget that they do not do so easily.

More coherent pathways from 11-18 would improve the coherence, continuity and progression which are rightly highlighted as key features of a well organised curriculum. They might, for example, be based on the "core skills" approach, with a commitment to variety in different institutions as to how breadth and balance are ensured.

What makes the present segmented system work is that much maligned piece of curriculum architecture, the subject department. Teachers within subjects take the varying terminology and manufacture a progression using their experience and relationships with pupils.

But who is the chief designer? Is it the curriculum council? Shortly after the curriculum draft hit the desk, another fell on top of the pile, Age and stage restrictions at Standard grade and Higher. This had a different source, the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department. The two papers appear not to have been written to complement each other. Indeed the first appears unaware of the imminent arrival of the second.

The "age and stage" paper does helpfully say that the Government has asked the curriculum council to take on board in its review any changes to when exams can be sat since there may be wider effects on the organisation and curriculum of the school. You can say that again!

We waited more than a year for the promised revision of the secondary guidelines only to find, within a month, an unanticipated paper which might change the fundamental architecture of the curriculum. Three weeks later, we were told about a new 5-14 committee to advise the minister. What exactly is the curriculum council for if the Scottish Office is conducting its own consultation on its own programmes?

Many agencies have some influence on the shape of the curriculum - not least local authorities, which have legal responsibility but have been playing catch-up with the avalanche of initiatives. It is arguable, however, that the biggest single influence, present on every major national body, supporting and resourcing every national development, driving the Scottish Office agenda and pulling civil servants, politicians and the profession together, is HMI.

But with responsibility should come accountability. By many performance indicators Scottish education is not being well managed, for example in the recent difficulties over modern languages. As we approach the millennium, we should have a proper debate about the secondary curriculum,not weary acceptance of what is on offer. Such a debate should focus on the merits of central direction against local ownership and creativity. It would involve consideration of both philosophical (what should we teach?) and practical (what can we plan to teach in the existing situation?) issues of curriculum management.

A new national curriculum framework should assist progression 3-18, should allow for development within the existing constraints of primary and secondary structures and staffing and should promote creativity and enthusiasm. Come on HMI, give us back the ball.

Daniel Murphy is headteacher of McLaren High School, Callander.

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