1st May 2009 at 01:00
In the second part of our series on classroom reactions to the final `experiences and outcomes' for A Curriculum for Excellence, more teachers give their verdicts


Another tier of support

The general consensus following the draft report was that there was not enough detail or logical flow. "The final version does not seem to have taken this on board and it remains vague and disjointed," feels Tom Balanowski, principal teacher of physics and maths at Linlithgow Academy.

As teachers tackle the difficult task of putting theory into practice, the end result will be the growth of a "cottage industry" where teachers will look to share good ideas, predicts Mr Balanowski. "One thing is certain: another tier of support with professional development or training is required, otherwise the initiative's future will be at risk," he warns.

This should include training at national level, highlighting examples of good practice and giving concrete strategies of next steps for department; and training on different approaches to assessment, says Mr Balanowski, who is the Institute of Physics east central Scotland network co- ordinator.

He is also concerned that the new curriculum gives priority to a general science approach up to S3. "The idea of non-specialists teaching biology, physics or chemistry in S3 is worrying. Hopefully, school management would recognise this and timetable appropriately," he comments.

Mr Balanowski is also anxious to see further details of how learning will be assessed and suggests that training will be required in this area also. "It would appear that a fair proportion of the assessment could well be subjective, giving rise to problems with standardisation across classes, departments and schools," he says.

Nevertheless, he feels there is "an opportunity here to attempt something quite radical that will place a great deal of emphasis on the teacher's talents". He concludes: "There is a lot of good practice happening out there already. Once the outcomes have been expanded and more support offered, then the future will appear brighter."


Change you can believe in

Lynn Seagrave, three years into her career as a biology teacher at Our Lady and St Patrick's High in Dumbarton, was a probationer when A Curriculum for Excellence appeared. "I may go against the grain, but I quite like the new outcomes," she admits.

"I like the fact there are five organisers to divide up the sciences, like the Planet Earth topic, which pulls all three together, because sometimes it is difficult for pupils to make links between the sciences. In our school, you can only do biology and chemistry together because of timetabling constraints. This will offer much more opportunity for practitioners to point out where the clear links apply," she says.

One concern for Mrs Seagrave is that ACfE was supposed to be decluttering the curriculum. She fears that, because the experiences and outcomes are quite broad, people will "fill them up with all sorts of information". She adds: "We will have to be careful to make space for cross-curricular approaches."

It will take a number of years before teachers are satisfied with the practices that are being brought in, she predicts. However, she thinks they will welcome opportunities to tie the curriculum into moral and ethical issues. "There is an opportunity here to use the change in the curriculum to motivate young people. There is a lack of interest in science - this is a more real way of relating it to life."


More polymers, please

There were more references to chemistry in the final outcomes and experiences than in the draft - a feature welcomed by Stephen Wright, a chemistry teacher at Deans Community High in Livingston.

He would, however, have wanted to see specific reference to polymer chemistry since in Scotland, home of the Grangemouth oil refinery, it is an industry offering potential employment to school leavers.

"Polymer chemistry, which is based on the derivatives of fossil fuels, is part of the curriculum at Standard grade, Higher and Advanced Higher. Now it is up to the teacher if he or she wants to go down that road. I felt it could have been an outcome in its own right. Polymers are also something the kids deal with every day, even if they don't know it - we're talking about plastics, basically."

Mr Wright is pleased to see a lot in the guidance about "future and environmental chemistry", which should interest pupils and allow teachers to start discussions and run projects and investigations. He also welcomes the more explicit references to chemistry contained in the final guidance: "Teachers will recognise much of this as chemistry that they have experience of and the resources to teach."


Clearer outcomes needed

The "principles and practice" document is more helpful than the experiences and outcomes guidance for outlining to teachers what they are expected to do under health and well-being, believes Laura McBride, principal teacher of guidance at Gleniffer High in Paisley.

This section is intended to be cross-curricular and the responsibility of all staff, which will require "a change of mindset", she says. That shift comes across clearly in the "principles and practice" documents, but is less clear in the experiences and outcomes.

Mrs McBride feels that her school is already meeting many of the expectations of A Curriculum for Excellence in terms of working with other agencies. "The difficulty I have is its vague statements about what a child would be able to say if he or she had reached the goals it sets out - there are not many resources to show how we can maintain or achieve this," she says.

Stephen McGuckin, principal teacher of PE at Larbert High in Falkirk, welcomes the clear message from the guidance that it wants to get pupils involved in daily energetic physical exercise. As part of the agenda which, with literacy and numeracy, becomes the responsibility of all staff, it makes PE one of three "core things" in school, he believes.

His concern is more logistical - not for his school, which is large and well-equipped - but for others which might be less well-resourced and struggle to offer additional PE outside the timetabled slot. He also feels there has to be a distinction drawn between core and certificated PE in the senior phase.


Quality of communication

The English and literacy framework is a reflection of what has always been good about Scottish education, says David Miller, who teaches English at St Ninian's High in Kirkintilloch.

He argues: "Literacy across subjects is not about maths or physics teachers teaching literacy in the way that an English teacher would. It's about other subjects being aware of how literacy can make a positive impact on their subject. What is a graph, if not a text? How can a biology teacher communicate the mysteries of the oxygen cycle, if not through a sophisticated and logical use of the English language? How can pupils in history get to grips with the Wars of Independence, if not through being taught good note-making skills. Are not all of these functions of literacy?"

It is about the quality of communication, Mr Miller concludes. Literacy projects at his school have so far been led by the English department. However, there is no reason why there should not be literacy projects between PE and music: "Analysis of aerobic and anaerobic exercise requires the same literacy skills as an analysis of the sonata form," he says.

Pam Lowdon, principal teacher of English at Cathkin High in South Lanarkshire, believes the outcomes and experiences advocate the kind of work with pupils that good teachers are already engaged in. She praises the new guidance for its stress on team-working, active learning, encouragement of the use of Scottish literature, and promotion of 21st- century texts, like email and texting.

"Modern forms of communication are fantastic, but there are drawbacks too," says Ms Lowdon. "It is so easy to press `send' and regret it. Pupils have to know the right medium for the message they are sending."

Modern languages

Reading for pleasure

Kathleen Lafuente, who teaches Spanish and French at Falkirk High, welcomes outcomes which encourage the use of games and collaborative activities, as they allow pupils to engage with the language at the same time as enjoying the learning experience.

The organising and using information outcome encourages teachers to allow pupils to plan and prepare talks collaboratively. "I see this as an exciting opportunity for pupils to have the support of others to prepare for what is often one of the most daunting experiences of modern languages learning - talking in front of others," she says.

Some of the reading outcomes describe pupils working on their own or together to understand texts - a "positive step forward", as pupils will be able to extend their language at a greater speed and hopefully be offered texts which are of interest to them, therefore motivating. "I'm hoping to use authentic materials available on the internet and rooted in the country where the language is spoken; newspapers, weather forecasts, film reviews, teenage magazines and so on," she says.

The one area of difference is "reading for interest and enjoyment", which will require her to examine her practice and look for better ways of offering pupils the choice about what they read. "The outcome suggests reading poetry and prose, which I would love to be able to do. Time constraints will be a factor, but we have considered introducing a short reading for pleasure slot," she says.


Ticks the boxes

Alan Jones, doyen of the classics education community and acting head of Eastbank Academy in Glasgow, finds nothing contentious. The document encourages him to think that Latin and Ancient Greek could be introduced at primary school.

The guidance anchors classics firmly within A Curriculum for Excellence, he feels.

"We have always thought - in the classical fold - that a number of general, broad educational boxes are ticked by a study of classics, and now that general, broad, educational achievements are being structured under the umbrella of A Curriculum for Excellence, the points that have been made for a good number of years are underlined," he said.

Mr Jones is reluctant to suggest that ACfE could herald a renaissance, largely because of resource constraints in schools. "The people who are practising classics and the parents whose children are learning it should be encouraged, he said. More importantly, young people who want to train as classics teachers should be that little bit more encouraged."


Place in Scotland's heritage

There are separate outcomes and experiences for Gaidhlig and literacy (for pupils learning through Gaelic medium) and for Gaelic learners.

Donalda McComb, head of Glasgow's Gaelic School which teaches primary and secondary-age pupils, believes the Gaidhlig and literacy outcomes offer more flexibility. "They are very good guidelines for developing the literacy skills of pupils," she says.

Pupils at her school have a range of different needs - some are fluent, while some come from homes where Gaelic is not spoken. "This gives us the breadth of examples to build a curriculum to suit everyone's needs."

Resources are always an issue, but the development of Glow, the schools intranet service, will be a major benefit by allowing schools to share good practice and resources more easily.

The Gaelic learners' outcomes and experiences will be useful for primary teachers teaching the language, believes Mary MacKinnon, who is the Gaelic learners' primary school co-ordinator for Argyll and Bute, and trains Gaelic teachers in the central belt. She hopes the new guidance will attract teachers who speak it fluently but don't want to teach in Gaelic- medium education, to consider teaching Gaelic in modern languages in primary schools.

The principles and practice document accompanying the experiences and outcomes emphasises its role in pupils' wider education and life experiences.

"It is particularly important in terms of the other aspect of A Curriculum for Excellence, which focuses on Scottish identity," she says.

The guidance will be good for raising pupils' awareness of Gaelic and why some pupils are in Gaelic-medium education, which can be done through interdisciplinary tasks to "ensure there is an understanding of the language and its place in Scotland and our heritage".

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