Teacher support is key in pulling off a 'game changer'

28th October 2011 at 01:00
We won't unlock the potential of the new curriculum without taking into consideration the development and conditions of the profession

How important is Curriculum for Excellence for the future success of Scottish education? I know from a whole series of meetings with teachers, officials and policy-makers across Scotland that, despite current tensions, the response remains "very important" or even "essential". The true test, however, will lie not so much in what we say, but in what we do now and in the future.

CfE is sometimes seen as a direct reaction to concerns about previous policy and practice, but it does not deny or reject the past. It stands on the shoulders of reforms which have transformed Scottish education over the past 30 years. Standard grade, Higher Still and perhaps particularly 5-14 are the foundations upon which CfE is built.

By providing routes to qualifications at different levels for all S4 pupils, Standard grade was a spearhead of inclusion which also revolutionised our understanding of assessment. Higher Still took that thinking forward through a much more imaginative qualifications framework which reflected a modern curriculum. And the focus on outcomes in 5-14 sought to entrench both clear standards and progression in learning across our primary schools and into the early years of secondary.

CfE builds on that legacy. It addresses unintended effects of previous policies and practices, looks to the future and creates a dynamic approach to curriculum development itself. It is avowedly ambitious in scope and aspiration, and the horizon for its ultimate success stretches far into the future.

It also addresses many of the "wicked issues" which have bedevilled school education for generations:

recognising the fundamental importance of the first few years of life;

shaping intentions in terms of capacities expressed through experiences and outcomes, rather than defined inputs;

highlighting the existential importance of literacy and numeracy;

establishing a broad general education, prior to the senior phase, as important in its own right;

and, vitally, creating more space for engaging, imaginative and purposeful teaching and deep learning.

So how do we make it happen - and, perhaps more importantly, how do we realise and sustain the full potential of our ambition?

The very nature of CfE is a "game changer". It has altered how we think about the ways in which our schools work and the curriculum is formed and reformed. It is providing the teaching profession with opportunities to reassert a professional agenda in ways that we have not seen for a generation. In asking the profession to rise to the challenge of raising standards and addressing underachievement, it confers new freedom which in turn brings new responsibility.

How will success be judged? First, all young people will demonstrably have benefited from a continuous, progressive and stimulating general education spanning the 3-15 age range. Imaginative and challenging teaching and learning based on the experiences and outcomes will have established them as successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. They should be well equipped for a wide range of possible further learning routes in the senior phase and beyond.

The keys to success lie in the breadth and depth of their learning and in their desire to continue learning. That is why our secondary schools should not see S1 to S3 implicitly as preparation for subsequent qualifications, but as an educational experience which has its own integrity and worth. If this ambitious goal is achieved, we will have established a much firmer base for subsequent examination performance (and, as a by-product, our Programme for International Student Assessment rankings are also likely to improve).

Second, CfE recognises the fundamental importance of literacy and numeracy as integral to success in learning and in life. That is why it stresses the responsibility of all teachers to develop these essential skills across the school and beyond, and has identified them clearly in the experiences and outcomes. If young people achieve to at least the level 3 outcomes and most to level 4 in literacy and numeracy, we will have gone a long way to addressing existing unacceptable levels of underachievement and to transforming educational standards in Scotland.

A third test of success will lie in the extent to which we have a dynamic curriculum that can motivate each child and young person and is constantly developing in response to the changing needs of society and to our developing understanding of learning itself. That means that teachers should be drivers and actors in educational change, rather than receivers of external prescription and deliverers of its requirements.

All of that will not be achieved automatically but will depend as never before on the professionalism of our teachers and on the quality of educational leadership at all levels. That is the agenda which I sought to address in my report, Teaching Scotland's Future, and it is central to the recommendations of the recently published McCormac Report.

It is vital that we see these three - curriculum, teacher education and teachers' terms and conditions - as one aligned agenda, embracing both the "what" and the "how" of education. Success will rest largely on how staff respond to this ambitious but essential agenda and on how they are supported in so doing. Piece by piece Scotland is creating an educational jigsaw which, once assembled, might just live up to the rhetoric about excellence which has characterised so much of our educational discourse over the past few years.

Graham Donaldson, Professor of education

Graham Donaldson is an honorary professor of education at Glasgow University and former senior chief inspector of education.

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