Teachers told to seize empowering opportunity

30th October 2009 at 00:00
Sunday marks five years since the proposals for A Curriculum for Excellence were published. The TESS asks eight members of the initial review group - as well as the then Education Minister, Peter Peacock - if they are happy with progress

Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, remains "very supportive" of reform. ACfE has emphasised aspects such as problem-solving and working with others, which can only be good for business.

But there is a caveat: although businesses in 2004 embraced the move away from a more prescriptive system, there are concerns that it is going too far the other way. Businesses like a "detailed syllabus" and believe in the importance of learning to sit external assessments. "Employers need to know what prospective employees have learned," he says.

Graham Hyslop, principal of Glasgow's Langside College, used to worry that colleges were not involved enough. That has changed in the past 18 months, he says, since Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop responded to such concerns and gave colleges a bigger say.

He is "very positive" about progress, but believes more needs to be done in continuing professional development and teacher education. Colleges can be the "Trojan horse" for reform because, since the 1980s, they have pioneered ideas such as student-centred learning, self-evaluation, flexible timetables and faculty structures.

George MacBride, retired principal teacher of support for learning at Glasgow's Govan High, is encouraged that formerly unconventional ideas are now taken for granted. The centrality of health and well-being in schools and the responsibility of all for literacy and numeracy are "very significant".

There is a risk that use of eight curricular areas could "sometimes be interpreted as bringing people back into traditional subject structures". In stark contrast to the stream of ill-fitting initiatives that typified past reform, however, there is now a "clear set of principles and strategy".

Keir Bloomer, chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council in 2004, identifies several signs of progress, such as widespread support for formative assessment and classes that are not strict groupings of same-age pupils.

There is a persistent misconception, however, that ACfE will be "done and dusted" in a few years, rather than bringing about "transformational change" over a long period. "The big picture hasn't been communicated effectively - parents have no idea what this is about."

He praises the Government for resisting "a lot of pressure" for more explicit guidelines. ACfE is an "empowering device" and teachers have to "seize that opportunity and overcome the crisis of confidence some are going through".

Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, remains as sceptical as in 2004. ACfE has, she believes, reinforced the "fashionable" view that a range of fulfilling experiences is "far more important than what people learn".

Much of the knowledge she gained as a youngster - from an appreciation of Shakespeare to boiling vegetables efficiently - came from school, not her home life. "To my mind, the rationale for school is not just social development - it's also about what you actually learn."

Brian Boyd, who in 2004 represented language education through his work at Strathclyde, says: "It could be argued that the progress towards implementation has taken longer than I expected but that may be no bad thing."

It has allowed the profession "time to get to grips with the report and the opportunities it offers".

While batting away some criticisms - inter-disciplinary approaches are "no threat to subjects" - he conceded that "some of the developments since publication are problematic; the new levels seem arbitrary and the subject areas seem to have come out of the blue".

Anton Colella, who was chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, but has for the last three years performed the same role at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, identified an "expectation gap" dividing teachers, who often appeared to be waiting for more explicit guidelines as in previous reforms, and policy-makers, who had overestimated how quickly teachers would realise the radical aims.

Linda Kinney, who was Stirling Council head of children's services but is now assistant chief executive, has been struck by the relish with which local teachers have embraced the chance to shake off the restrictions of 5-14, particularly in primaries. But one of the document's original strengths - having the support of various non-education professionals - has been lost, with parents and employers often having little understanding of A Curriculum for Excellence's aims.


The former Education Minister, Labour's Peter Peacock, believes recent criticisms match the "pretty predictable" pattern of Scottish educational reform, in which implementation throws up a plethora of concerns.

The Government has to "stick with it", since the initial proposals matched "what the whole system was looking for".

But he criticised the Government for the "major and classic error" of not investing enough in teachers' development, which was "vital to deliver the teachers for excellence that are absolutely confident in what they are free to do and what that means for their teaching practice".

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