Report that fell out of the bag

27th June 2008 at 01:00
I understand the frustration of Brian Boyd and Keir Bloomer that A Curriculum for Excellence may be "losing momentum" (TESS June 6)
I understand the frustration of Brian Boyd and Keir Bloomer that A Curriculum for Excellence may be "losing momentum" (TESS June 6). But we need to recognise the scale of change needed in secondary schools. Also, trying to force fundamental change through quickly without taking those who have to be "the change" with you is a recipe for disaster.

I know the worry about momentum partly comes from the fear that there are those at all levels in the system who are waiting for ACfE to fail. Let these people be in no doubt that radical change is needed in our secondaries. And if they want to know, they just need to look at two sources of information.

The first is a video, Shift Happens, highlighted in The TESS last month, which has been adapted for Scotland by HMIE. It vividly illustrates the characteristics and qualities young people will need in an increasingly competitive world. One factoid is that, in 10 years' time, China will be the number one English-speaking country in the world. Add this to a recent report that, on June 7, more than 10 million 18-year-olds across China simultaneously took the same entrance exam for university. With only six million places, the stakes were high. Many of the four million who don't make it, we were told, will look to further their careers abroad.

Put this together with the most challenging document produced this session on Scottish education, namely the OECD review of Scottish schools. It seemed as if it had accidentally fallen out of the schoolbag on the way home, but has resurfaced. There are four mentions of it in Building the Curriculum 3 and it is seen as the rationale for "one of the most ambitious programmes of educational reform ever undertaken in Scotland".

The report notes that the greatest strength of Scottish schooling is in our primaries, but that our secondary system is top-heavy. A chilling statistic is that our secondaries perform among the best in the developed world for the top 20 per cent of their students, but are at the foot of the league table for the performance of the bottom 20 per cent.

It describes the changes proposed in Scotland during the national education debate of 2002, which led to ACfE, as "modest". It goes on to say that there is a need for significant cultural and organisational changes in secondary schools to motivate low-achieving students. There is also a "widening gap in achievement from P6 onwards". The report identifies what we know too well about the shortcomings in secondary compared with primary: more pressure on pupils as individuals, reduction in oversight of the whole child, less group work, subjects which have little meaning unless you are aiming for university, increasing emphasis on theoretical aspects of pupils' studies when they want practical applications', falling self-confidence and plummeting enjoyment.

The secondary curriculum is designed to prepare students for university, not for life. The report recognises this. It points out that university offers a sense of purpose and throws "a mantle of meaning" over subjects which otherwise have no relevance for them.

Some justified this recently by saying that a majority go on to university. Wrong. According to government statistics in 2006, 58 per cent in the top social class got a university degree, 23 per cent in the bottom social class; the average is 37 per cent.

I'm not simply concerned about the bottom 20 per cent. What about the 60 per cent in the middle? And for that matter, the top 20 per cent? How many come out with a good degree but lack the qualities needed to sell themselves in a global marketplace?

If you have any doubt about the need for radical change in secondary schools read the report which, until June 10, I thought had fallen out of the bag.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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