Sleepwalk to disaster?

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Peter Wright is a West Lothian secondary teacher and vice-president elect of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association

Matthew MacIver, registrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, has recently expressed fears that an "unintended consequence"

of A Curriculum for Excellence could be "the undermining of the very subjects which are at the heart of the school system, particularly in secondary schools".

This note of warning from the gate-keeper of the teaching profession echoes concerns of my own union.

Classroom secondary teachers note the lack of genuine engagement with the profession by those who are driving ACfE. By "genuine engagement", those present meant real dialogue - in advance of the proposals being implemented, with classroom secondary teachers of all subjects and from across the spectrum of experience.

It is thought that the much-delayed science proposals are about to be published in the form of a teaching pack entitled Planet Earth. However, this pack is said to be content-free and to consist only of outcomes or processes which the student is expected to achieve in the context of ACfE's "four capacities". There is some advantage in this, in that schools may be able to modify these courses to allow for more flexible delivery.

So why worry? Context is everything. If such proposals had been published 20 years ago, the context would have been entirely different. The average age of secondary teachers at that time would have been mid-30s. Secondary schools had largely overcome the difficulties caused by staff shortages in the early to mid-1970s. The Standard grade curriculum was being embedded by subject departments, led by subject principal teachers supported by their own subject colleagues and teams of guidance teachers.

Secondary schools were supported by regional authorities with substantial development budgets and full-time advisory staff. Secondary teaching remained the preserve of secondary-trained specialists.

The context now is different. The average age of secondary teachers is well into the 50s. Within a few years, a significant proportion of our most experienced classroom practitioners will have retired. Few new staff will have experience of significant curriculum development. The 32 local authorities vary in quality and support for schools. And the GTCS has recently made it easier for teachers to move across sector and subject boundaries within the secondary category.

In this radically different context, the concept of a content-free secondary curriculum is likely to be dangerously seductive, especially in those local authorities which experience financial cuts and in schools with staffing difficulties.

These concerns are not the product of reactionary thinking. The secondary curriculum cannot remain unchanged. But before subjects are condemned to oblivion, it is time to consider what content we wish to teach, so that it can be delivered in a way which satisfies the requirements of stakeholders and society as a whole.

Without such debate, secondary schools may sleepwalk their way into a curriculum disaster which may be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

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