The shape of curriculums to come

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Learning and Teaching Scotland has recently advertised four senior appointments to support its remit of promoting "a climate of innovation, ambition and excellence throughout Scottish education". One of these posts is "director of curriculum futures", with a strong emphasis on research.

The successful candidate will be expected to deliver a planned programme of research which is intended to provide a basis for sound policy advice to schools, local authorities and other stakeholders.

I welcome this focus on the future and on the potential contribution of research to thinking about the form and content of the curriculum. An important aspect of envisioning the future is the use of information and communications technology. Already Learning and Teaching Scotland produces many technology-based resources for schools and their effective deployment requires significant changes in the way teachers operate and, indeed, in the culture of schools. Research evidence on laptop computers, for example, suggests that some schools and some teachers make much better use of them than others.

Perhaps significantly, "experience of leading cultural change" is listed as an essential characteristic in the person being sought for the "curriculum futures" post. Much will depend, however, on the interpretation that is given to "curriculum". If it is simply viewed in terms of a redefinition of the knowledge and skills required by young people, then any benefits are likely to be limited. Arguably, the document A Curriculum for Excellence, which underpins official policy on the curriculum, seems to fall into this category. It makes passing reference to the impact of "global social, political and economic changes" and suggests that the educational system must be responsive to these.

But the main thrust of the report is that a series of relatively modest reforms -decluttering here, restructuring there, better assessment and recording, enhanced continuity from 3-18 - should be sufficient to bring about improvements in pupil achievement. There is limited recognition of the many sources of knowledge, skill, experience and understanding outside formal education and no mention at all of the effects of the hidden curriculum on some pupils: that is, the unintended learning (often of a negative sort) that is conveyed through the structure and organisation of schools, their value systems and the kinds of relationships that they permit.

What is really required is a much broader view of the curriculum that would include the nature of schools as institutions, the social functions that they serve, their relation to other important agencies, and the ways in which their traditional role as gatekeepers of knowledge and monopolisers of the processes of learning is being challenged.

Many of the key issues that need to be addressed in Scotland are explored in the future scenarios of schooling developed in recent years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The person appointed should certainly consult the OECD research publications on this theme. So far, however, relatively little attention seems to have been given to them in Scotland, which suggests a disappointingly narrow approach to curriculum reform. One of the other posts is for a "director of curriculum current".

There is the potential for a degree of tension between the holder of this post, who will be required to work closely with the Scottish Executive and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education, with a clear focus on national priorities, and the holder of the "curriculum futures" post, who presumably will feel less constrained by the way things are and more concerned with the way things might be.

Interestingly, the "curriculum current" post attracts a marginally higher salary. I wonder why that should be so.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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