Rid schools of their shackles

5th September 2008 at 01:00
Last week, I welcomed the aspiration of the consultation documents Building the Curriculum 3 (BTC3) and the next generation of National Qualifications (NQs). However, I am concerned about unrecognised difficulties the proposals may cause in secondary schools. I believe there are six such issues:

- Skills: BTC3's mantra of "skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work" links well to the four capacities, but only literacy and numeracy are made explicit. The development of a core set of ICT skills needs little justification, while knowledge about how people learn and of one's own learning capacities are a key part of becoming a "successful learner". Valuable developments, such as co-operative learning, philosophy for kids and restorative practice, also develop learning capacity.

- Benchmarking: teachers are to assess their pupils' progress to S3 with reference to standards established through moderation activity. Yet benchmarking by professional moderation has not worked, despite the tightly-specified national tests of 5-14. Benchmarking against national standards provides objective information about progress for teacher and learner. Objections are often to do with the abuse of the information produced. Used to support learning, there is a role for nationally- benchmarked tests.

- The "new S3": Alex Wood (TESS July 4) is not the only head worried that this may simply aggravate S2 "drift", a complex problem involving the distractions caused by the early onset of "adult" social behaviours (sex, drugs and drink) and a growing recognition for some that they will emerge from the school system as relative failures. The proposals require a leap of faith: that a new S1-3 experience, freed from "fear of failure" and more supportive of individual learning, will retain the interest and engagement of a larger number of pupils, including those who "tolerate" school but don't put much heart and soul into it. More practical exemplification will be needed to persuade experienced teachers, particularly those who have welcomed the rigour and motivation of early presentation, that the "new S3" is not just unrealistic.

- Timetabling: also worrying is the easy way in which the authors of the report dismiss timetabling. There is a lack of recognition of the creative and technical work involved in changing models, given that they are based around the subject curriculum. Choice and opportunity should be in the open.

- Implementation: although the proposals avoid the micro-management debacle of Higher Still, the profession needs more detail to have confidence that those "in charge" know what they are doing. BTC3 is based on sounder educational principles than previous curricular reforms, but it will take resources and planning to persuade most teachers and headteachers to step out into an innovation void. Supports needed include more exemplars, clearer timescales, worked examples, conferences, weblinks, secondments and, above all, realisable timescales. The proposals promise more support to come, but what will be the character and quality of that support?

- Accountability: finally, can the accountability required by A Curriculum for Excellence be trusted or will we continue to be judged by aggregated examination results, unreliably compared with other schools? We are told that inspection will change as the curriculum changes. If secondary inspection, with its rigidities and obsession with judgment, is to support creativity and risky innovation, it will need to change more than schools. If we want innovation and experiment, we need to free schools from their shackles.

Next week: can the reforms deliver on the most important priority - the substantial number of young people who are not educated to their potential

Daniel Murphy is headteacher of Lornshill Academy, Alloa.

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