Subject revampmay be stifled

10th June 2005 at 01:00
The "awful conservatism" of Scottish education could scupper plans for curriculum reform, according to a Government consultant. Another leading expert has suggested that change would have to fight against vested interests. And a senior headteacher warned that jobs could be at risk.

A seminar this week organised by Glasgow University's global citizenship unit heard the most sustained critique of the reform process to date from Ian Barr, an adviser on education to the Department for International Development, Brian Boyd, professor of education at Strathclyde University, and Patricia Lennon, head of Notre Dame High in Glasgow.

Mr Barr, a former director of Learning and Teaching Scotland, accused ministers of embracing "the same tired preoccupations with achievement, the emphasis on skills for work and the inability to move away from the subject-based model".

Mr Barr also suggested that the implementation process would be "no more than a tinkering at the edges of the existing curriculum", despite the review having pressed the case for radical change.

In the short term, he said, the Scottish Executive planned to ask small groups of teachers to see how the 5-14 guidelines shaped up to the review, to excise those aspects not deemed necessary or at odds with it and to add where necessary when existing guidelines are deemed deficient.

Mr Barr said: "The promise of the report will have succumbed to the awful conservatism of Scottish education, turning a potentially visionary document into simply more of the same insular, examination and test-dominated, essentially irrelevant experience for the majority of young people."

Professor Boyd, a member of the review group, told the seminar that the report would have to overcome a number of vested interests if it was to have any impact on schools. Despite expectations by the review group that its members would be involved in the process after their report was published, that had not happened.

"Now another group - an implementation group - is looking at whole areas of the curriculum in ways which are subtly, or not so subtly, different from the views of the review group. The implementation group has already identified eight subject areas which look suspiciously like modes," he said.

Professor Boyd asked who would decide who is going to "declutter" the curriculum. "If there is overcrowding because of too many bits, are we looking at integration?" he wondered. "We know from research that the integrative approach is very effective, and that is different from integration of subjects."

He said the curriculum reforms would not work unless established approaches were challenged. This included the role of the Scottish Qualifications Authority since it was impossible to look at changes in the curriculum "if we believe that the present examination system is the only way you can examine young people".

Professor Boyd said that local authority education staff had been asking how long it would be before the implementation group reported and advised:

"Don't wait for central direction. Let's start the directions now about what a curriculum would look like."

He said the Curriculum for Excellence report was "positive, innovative and encourages risk-taking". It was not, however, just a matter for the implementation group but concerned "the willingness of the profession to engage with the ideas in it".

Mrs Lennon told the seminar that the review group's eight-page report had been quite inspirational, but that teachers had difficulty in seeing how it would translate into practice. There were concerns about how decluttering of the curriculum was to be carried out.

"What stays? What goes? If something goes, there are vested interests in the schools. We have got departments, jobs, members of staff. Will you have less subject content to deliver? That means you have less subject time which means you need less staff. It's not just what goes, but who goes, and a lot of people will be quite anxious about that."

She warned that timetable structures were relatively inflexible and that accommodating the kind of curriculum envisaged would be challenging. "I can't see us getting to the stage where you say to staff, 'You come in between 2pm and 8pm to deliver your stuff'," Mrs Lennon commented.

A spokeswoman for the Executive said: "We are quite clear that a cross-curriculum approach is needed to take forward these changes. Initial groups are working on broad curriculum groupings. This is a quick technical exercise. It is intended to be a starting point before we go on to engage with schools, third parties and academics to develop a coherent way forward."

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