Storming the walls of Gormenghast

29th August 2008 at 01:00
There is no doubt that reform of national curricular guidance and qualifications in Scottish schools, particularly in the secondary sector, is long overdue and very welcome.

We have become used to a curriculum structure that owes a lot to the Gormenghast school of architecture, with the 5-14 curriculum areas and levels A-F progressing rather unevenly to Munn's Standard grade modes and subjects at grades 1-6, and on then through clumsily-stitched transitions to Higher and Intermediate 1 and 2, A to C.

This is a design which owes more to political fashion and professional compromise than a curricular vision. A Curriculum for Excellence, with its clear depiction of the "capacities" of the educated Scottish school pupil and its principles for design, provides such a vision - a vision which has inspired many secondary schools to breathe creativity into the lifeless conformity imposed by previous HMIE-enforced route-march "guidance".

However, schools can only work round the foundations of this complex curriculum "castle". Only national agencies can rearrange the more fundamental aspects of the structure. It is such a rearrangement that is proposed in the two current consultation documents, Building the Curriculum 3 and the next generation of National Qualifications.

Together, these documents bring a welcome space for educational discussion in Scotland. Rather than, as in the 1990s, fighting political battles to retain space for professional creativity, teachers are being asked to build on existing improvements which have increased the capacity of the Scottish system to help our children realise their potential. The documents propose that teachers should develop more engaging learning experiences in S1-3, freed from the dominance of the examination curriculum. The greater success in learning students will thus experience will build a sound platform of core attainments, leading to a positive post-16 destination.

There is certainly much to commend in these aspirations. There is a clear common purpose, and shared aims are set out from 3-18. We are offered a common set of principles and vocabulary for curriculum design. These proposals recognise the need for a significant degree of professional freedom for teachers to interpret national guidance in the light of local circumstances.

There is a strong aspiration in both documents to liberate Scottish secondary schools from the dominance of an examination curriculum which ranks children on a linear scale of ability, with intrinsic demotivating effects. The aim is to provide equity in choices and support for those who leave school at 16, as for those who stay on. If even half of this agenda is achieved, it will be a positive forward step for Scottish education.

But there are specific difficulties with the proposals which could prevent these aspirations being realised. Next week, I will look at six specific problems with the proposals: skills, benchmarking, the "new S3", timetabling, accountability and implementation. In the third article, I will reflect on whether the proposals understand or address the priorities for Scottish secondary schools which were identified in the OECD report.

Daniel Murphy is headteacher of Lornshill Academy, Alloa.

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