Reforms need plain speaking

9th April 2010 at 01:00

Politicians who listen are commendable. The statement on Curriculum for Excellence by Education Secretary Michael Russell last week was the first time anyone senior has taken the criticisms seriously.

There is much to commend in what he said. He acknowledged the reform's vagueness is mere emptiness, not flexibility. So he promises clarity. He is dismayed at the lack of attention to subject specialism. So he will, admirably, set up expert groups. He cannot understand why we need literacy tests separate from English, nor numeracy separate from maths. Wisely, he will absorb these into the subjects where they belong.

He knows the problems will not be solved by delay, and the only reason why Labour talks only about the preparations not being ready is that it cannot admit it is as responsible for the mess as the SNP. So he will judiciously let schools which want to go ahead take the lead.

His own experience on the parliamentary education committee at the time of the Higher Still fiasco of 2000 has taught him that Scottish educational reform will never get anywhere unless it is led by teachers.

But the problem is far bigger than this promising start can solve. Clarity cannot be achieved by fiat. You can't wish away mounds of opaque verbiage. "Explaining" it better, adding a "parent" to a national committee, will not change this. Thus, the first question is still: what actually do the "experiences and outcomes" mean?

Valid assessment cannot be conjured out of wishful thoughts. Expertise in how to test pupils is sparse in primary education, as the new National Assessment Resource recognises. So we must ask: how can we devolve responsibility for assessment to a primary workforce that the university teacher-training courses have failed to educate properly in assessment techniques?

Heads have a crucial role in reform, which is no doubt why the instinct of government when in a mess is to trust them. Yet the big concerns have not been about management, but about what happens day to day in classrooms bereft of guiding principles. Why, then, seminars for headteachers?

HMIE got us to this point, just as it got us to the precipice over which Higher Still nearly propelled us. What grounds do we have for believing in its capacity to "promote effective innovation"?

We still know little about the structure and content of the exams that will determine the meaning of the reform in secondaries. When will they be sat? Why forbid widespread presentation in S3 when the reform insists on flexibility? How can breadth and depth of study at Higher be maintained when the preparatory phase is as curtailed as seems likely from the abolition of Standard grade? What of the widening of opportunity in S5-6 that the Intermediate awards have brought? What does the SQA mean when it says assessment will rely much less on exams, and who will then believe the results?

Commendable though Mr Russell's recognition of the importance of subjects is, he evades the problem of what will happen in primaries. There are pockets of subject expertise there, but they are sporadic and lack the networks secondary specialists have managed (with exiguous funding) to maintain. So how can specialist leadership be brought to the primary curriculum?

And why does a man of Mr Russell's historical sensitivity insist on importing from his several predecessors the platitudes that we need "new ways of learning" and "new skills" for a "modern world"?

What is needed are knowledge, intellect, integrity and the capacity for judgment, aims that have been with us since Socrates guided Plato. That tradition has far more to offer us than policy ephemera. I suspect Mr Russell knows this. So why doesn't he just say it?

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University.

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