Shift the focus towards skills

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Some time ago, I wrote in The TESS that the enthusiasm behind A Curriculum for Excellence had been allowed to dissipate, and that there was an urgent need to re-energise the programme
Some time ago, I wrote in The TESS that the enthusiasm behind A Curriculum for Excellence had been allowed to dissipate, and that there was an urgent need to re-energise the programme. That seems to be a view shared by the Cabinet Secretary. Her recent statement showed an admirable interest in the new approach. Unfortunately, somebody advised her that her first substantive announcement should centre on exams.

There is, of course, a need for examination reform and the proposals are generally sensible. However, starting with assessment and certification rather than the curriculum or approaches to learning encourages a focus on detail rather than the big picture. Many of the comments published subsequently have concentrated on, for example, the articulation of existing courses with Higher grade. These matters are not unimportant but, at this stage, they are irrelevant.

The centrepiece of the minister's announcement is the discontinuation of Standard grade and Intermediate qualifications, and the introduction of a replacement which will not involve preparation during S3. Standard grade has a single important positive achievement to its credit: it established the idea that all young people should receive recognition for their achievements in school.

It is worth reflecting on the timescale of Standard grade development, which was a belated response to the raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1971. More than 20 years later, the full system finally came into operation in time for the offspring of the children for whom it was intended.

All this is relevant because of the reaction to the idea that Fiona Hyslop's qualification should be in operation by 2012-13. We have to learn that the traditional geological timescales of educational change are simply not acceptable in the modern world.

The novelty in the recent proposals is certificating achievement in literacy and numeracy. The recognition that a key element of the new curriculum is the promotion of transferable skills across all areas is very welcome. However, the focus on literacy and numeracy highlights a critical weakness. Why are skills which should be acquired in the early years regarded as the touchstone of educational success? Is there nothing in post-elementary education of comparable importance?

Of course not - and this explains much of the concern expressed over the fate of S3 - if examination preparation is not to begin until the following year. S1-2 have been accepted for years as an educational wasteland, even though this is when secondary schools are free from the exam constraints of which they complain. The problem is that the rationale for post-elementary education is weak. Primary schools teach you to read, write and count; secondary schools while away the time until you are old enough to be examined.

This is the inevitable outcome of an excessive focus on content. Even the most committed and successful pupils quickly forget the majority of the subject content they mastered for recall at the opportune time. The real value lies in the skills and the intellectual influences that remain.

Secondary schools teach many skills but fail to describe them as fundamental, transferable accomplishments. Solving quadratic equations doesn't compete with literacy and numeracy but, lying behind surface skills, secondaries are teaching the true basics of the 21st century: information-handling, problem-solving, synthesis and creativity.

Re-energising A Curriculum for Excellence depends on shifting the debate to higher ground. Shifting the focus from content to skills, or deciding how to assess what really matters can bring real change, which will never be achieved by rearranging qualifications, even in an eminently sensible way.

Keir Bloomer is former chief executive and director of education, Clackmannanshire Council.

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