24th April 2009 at 01:00

Before Easter, the final 'experiences and outcomes' for A Curriculum for Excellence were published. This week and next, The TESS asks teachers to give their verdicts.

Technologies - A welcome inclusion

The new experiences and outcomes for computing are a "vast improvement" on the draft guidance, according to Mark Tennant, of Dunbar Grammar in East Lothian.

Computing teachers have long argued that computing is about building technology, while ICT is about using it. Mr Tennant praises the final version of the guidance for "finally highlighting the difference". He also welcomes the move away from general statements applicable to all the subjects under the technologies banner, to splitting the guidance up into different "contexts", which makes it clearer and more relevant.

The new guidance acknowledges that some aspects of ICT will have to be delivered by specialists and gives a ringing endorsement of the relevance of computing in the digital era. But computing studies is still under threat, he feels, as it remains to be seen whether local authorities and schools will endorse it.

In home economics, the main concerns are about timetabling. Caroline Stewart, a home economics teacher at Blairgowrie High, welcomes the lack of vagueness and jargon in "straightforward" outcomes and experiences, as well as the focus on practical learning relevant to pupils' lives. But, she asks: "Will distinct subjects be willing to negotiate with each other to work collaboratively and not be over-protective of 'their' time with pupils?"

Ian Bell, principal teacher of craft, design and technology at Boroughmuir High, Edinburgh, is delighted to see the skills related to technological studies - electronics, pneumatics and mechanisms - included. He warns, however, that a number of schools have dropped the subject and will need financial assistance if they are to offer it again. Even schools like his own, which has championed technological studies at Standard grade and Higher, would need financial support to upgrade old equipment if they were to offer it to younger classes.

Re - Specific for Catholic schools

Of all the areas covered by A Curriculum for Excellence, religious education in Catholic schools is probably - and necessarily so - the most prescriptive and specific in its content, believes Jim Kerr, headteacher of St Andrew's Primary in Bearsden.

For a Catholic school, RE is not like other areas of the curriculum where you can bring in your own thoughts, he argues. "The curricular guidance has got to be tight enough to ensure that the knowledge and understanding are there, but be flexible in its approach."

Until now, in denominational primaries, teachers have had only one resource for teaching RE. That will change, he predicts. "In a Catholic school, RE is central to what we do. It is the pivotal area of the curriculum for us. We have to look at that first, and then see how it links in with other areas."

However, the new guidance will make it easier for teachers to make cross-curricular links - for example, his P7 class did a recent project on "modern day prophets", which allowed them to look at Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. "We've been able to widen it while also protecting the RE-ness of RE," he adds.

The experiences and outcomes also emphasise that teachers have to demonstrate different levels of understanding at different levels, he says.

RME - Teachers' views reflected

A few subtle changes between the draft and final versions have improved the RME guidance "quite considerably", believes David Ralston, principal teacher of religious, moral and philosophical studies at Williamwood High in East Renfrewshire.

The cover paper for the draft experiences and outcomes had suggested teachers would be able to "go beyond just the traditional religious viewpoints" and encourage critical thinking. However, the actual draft experiences and outcomes did not reflect that initial promise.

"I did notice in the final version that independent views are mentioned in the third section (on development of beliefs and values) and philosophical inquiry is in there as well. These are big changes which improve the balance of the paper," he said.

Along with colleagues, Mr Ralston attended a forum held by Glasgow University to canvass teachers' views on the draft guidance: "I am pleased that a lot of these views are reflected in the final version."

Probationary and relatively inexperienced teachers have welcomed the clarity of the guidance, he reports. "It is clear what's required and they are not too burdensome in terms of content."

Expressive arts - Away with the airy-fairy

The promise in the expressive arts outcomes and experiences that the extra-curricular would become curricular has been welcomed by Alison Reid, head of music at Portlethen Academy in Aberdeenshire. She would love to have two hours with her orchestra, instead of a snatched half-hour at lunchtime.

She warns that teachers in art, drama and music are worried that some senior managers may use this as an excuse to put on a pantomime and consider the expressive arts covered. Ms Reid welcomes the removal of "arty-farty" and "airy-fairy" words, such as "magic", "power" and "wonder" from the guidance.

In drama, Graham Parry, who teaches at Hamilton Grammar in South Lanarkshire, notes with concern that, while "participation, performances and presentations" were previously included in each of the subject areas, the requirement now is for it to be done in "at least one" of the expressive arts. "How do you formalise that and ensure each child is involved in at least one performance?" he asks.

Mr Parry also picks up on mentions of "scripts" at the third and fourth levels. "We don't use a lot of script until the senior school, so in terms of changes, that is one of the big ones; we will have to implement more textual work in S3-4," he comments.

Diarmuid McAuliffe, who teaches student teachers in art at the University of the West of Scotland and is the Scottish representative on the teacher education board for the National Society for Education in Art and Design, believes the final document shows a depth and breadth of experiences which are "meaningful and relevant to young people living in Scotland today".

His biggest caveat is that delivery will require "a great deal of CPD", and his observation of curriculum innovation in the rest of the UK is that Scotland is lagging behind in this area.

Mathsnumeracy - Ring the changes

There are a number of changes in the final version of outcomes and experiences for numeracy and mathematics from those originally issued in draft form, finds Ian Cassells, former principal teacher of maths at Chryston High and now a quality improvement officer at North Lanarkshire Council.

The vast majority would be considered minor adaptations, such as the solid line between the third and fourth levels which is now dotted, suggesting that these levels will be less age and stage-related than the early to second levels.

A few of the outcomes have had modifications to the wording; for example, at third level, a money outcome has been reworded to focus more on spending money and to seek best value when purchasing goods or services.

"I believe the language used in the outcomes, while overly child-friendly for a professional document, is nonetheless easily understood by pupils, parents and teachers who will use the document in other curricular areas," he says.

Peter Bruce, a maths teacher at Perth Grammar, is more critical. He admits to preferring the more specific 5-14 guidance. Although it was prescriptive, he always had time to teach "the extras", with the possible exception of Advanced Higher and Higher where there is "a lot to get through".

He adds: "There is a danger in A Curriculum for Excellence that if we are doing things slightly differently across the country, what happens if a pupil moves from this area to one with a completely different set-up?"

However, he welcomes the idea that other departments will also be responsible for improving numeracy and looks forward to working with them.

Geography - People, place, environment

When Malcolm McDonald started as a geography teacher in 1975, he was told he was in the vanguard of the "new geography".

"No more would I be doing the old-fashioned 'capes and bays-style' geography, asking students to learn and memorise the rivers, capitals, farm products, industries and so on of as many countries as they could cram into a jotter," says the Bathgate Academy principal teacher who is president of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers.

This "new geography" looked at concepts and skills and common features across different physical and human landscapes, he explains. To help the hundreds of young teachers get to grips with the new curriculum for S1-2, each department was given a set of "black boxes" containing exemplification materials under titles such as empty lands, crowded lands, weather, Earth forces, farming, industry, sculpting the earth, resources, and "the environmental problem".

"Looking through the new experiences and outcomes, the geography (sorry, people and place and environment) remains similar to those black boxes. The main differences lie in the way the authors have tried to build in 'experiences'," he says.

"These experiences are couched in a variety of terms, such as identify, discuss, compare, explain, investigate, consider the advantages and so on. One of the big differences is the way sustainability has, rightly, been embedded successfully in several of the outcomes, with the hope that the next decade's learners will be able to think about better ways of looking after their landscapes, as well as further afield."

Modern studies - Not just relevant to Scotland

A major departure for modern studies teachers is the inclusion of economics and business studies in the "people in society, economy and business" area of the social studies curriculum.

For some, this may present a positive challenge, believes Guch Dhillon, principal teacher of modern studies and economics at Clydebank High. However, he thinks that the outcomes are sufficiently wide so modern studies teachers need not feel forced to teach unfamiliar economic and business areas of the curriculum and will be able to hook the broad third and fourth-level outcomes into current topics.

Mr Dhillon, who is secretary of the Modern Studies Association in Scotland, points out that, unlike history, the modern studies-related outcomes do not have a particular emphasis on Scotland: "You could pick any country, as long as you were able to demonstrate an understanding of that particular concept."

He is a self-confessed advocate of A Curriculum for Excellence but, believes that many teachers will find the experiences and outcomes do not offer them sufficient direction.

History - Wider contexts neglected

Despite some adjustments since the draft guidance was published, there are still too few references to wider British, European and world contexts, compared to the number of references to Scottish history, believes Duncan Toms, president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History.

"Given the limited time for teaching history, there is a danger that these wider contexts could become relatively neglected - which is undesirable in terms of young people's general education and global participation," adds Mr Toms, who is principal teacher of history at Bearsden Academy.

Nor do the frequent references to Scotland guarantee that young people will have a more systematic knowledge and understanding of Scottish history. The outcomes could be overtaken within a relatively small number of topics andor time periods - especially if studied as part of an integrated social subjects course, he argues.

"This is why the Scottish Government is considering proposals from the history working group to augment the outcomes with clear guidelines in the form of an options grid to ensure a more systematic coverage of Scottish history across a number of time periods and within an overall balance of wider British, European and global contexts," he explained.

On the whole, however, he feels the experiences and outcomes for history "largely accord with much of current practice". The main changes to the original drafts appear to be the introduction of a strand relating to the use of sources of historical evidence, and the deletion andor rewording of some of the more complex outcomes, he says.

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