Time for teachers to help curriculum

28th May 2010 at 01:00

It is now more than five years since the Curriculum Review Group produced the original Curriculum for Excellence paper, setting out four long-term objectives for Scottish education. These have since been designated - I don't know why the ugly jargon was felt necessary - the "four capacities". They encapsulate what the review group saw as the educational response that had to be made to the challenges facing Scotland in the early 21st century. They are now more necessary and more urgent than ever.

The pace of economic growth in countries like China and India and the increasing size and quality of their higher education sectors make it imperative that Scotland's schools should have an intellectually-ambitious curriculum capable of producing successful lifelong learners and effective contributors. At the same time, the continuing decline of trust in our democratic institutions urgently calls for action by responsible, confident and thoughtful citizens.

In other words, the programme of educational change sketched out in 2004 remains necessary and appropriate. I have been as critical as anyone of the shortcomings in the development programme. However, the only appropriate response is to argue constructively for changes, not to suggest delay or abandonment.

Over the past few months, there have been encouraging signs that the Government recognises the validity of some of the criticisms and is prepared to reshape aspects of the programme. At the same time, a welcome sense of momentum has been re-injected. There are quite a few signs of this new openness - the Education Secretary's 10-point plan is an obvious instance. I want to focus on just three.

The establishment of "excellence groups" is a major step forward. These are intended to bring together leading practitioners and experts from the worlds of academia and business to look at how the curriculum can be modernised and made more ambitious. Most of the groups are subject-based but one is to be concerned specifically with higher-order skills. This new emphasis on high-end achievement appropriately complements the existing priority given to basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

Perhaps more importantly, it is essential if Curriculum for Excellence is to contribute usefully to Scotland's long-term economic prosperity. In an increasingly competitive global society, high-wage economies such as ours will thrive only if they become increasingly innovative and adept at seizing new opportunities. The school curriculum needs to ensure that a large and ever-growing proportion of the workforce is capable of succeeding in the creative knowledge-based industries of the future.

Second, I perceive an attempt to steer the inspectorate towards support and, to an extent at least, away from judgment. The moratorium on inspecting secondary schools, temporary as it is, exemplifies this. So, too, does the offer to help schools experiencing difficulty preparing for the new curriculum. Perhaps even more important is the aim to use inspection as a way of encouraging, rather than inhibiting, innovation.

Teachers will inevitably be suspicious of these moves, but they should welcome them as offering a route towards a more constructive relationship between the inspectorate and the profession. I hope I am right about this development: it would not only improve the chances of worthwhile change but also make better use of a major source of expertise.

Finally, a vital element in the way the programme is being reshaped is a new emphasis on improved communication and, in particular, greater clarity and simplicity in the strategic guidance. Through the implementation partnership, David Cameron, the former president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, and I have been asked to write simplified and greatly shortened versions of some of the key documents. Versions of Building the Curriculum (3 and 5) will be in schools very shortly. In essence, these are summaries of the original documents but they also give increased prominence to a number of key generative ideas that can be expected both to influence what schools will do in the short- term and to help develop constructive ideas on what should follow.

It would be a mistake to overestimate the significance of these little papers, although I hope that teachers will find them practically useful. They may, however, represent a step towards developing an effective model for managing a decentralised programme of educational change. From the outset, both this Government and its predecessor have commendably stressed the importance of liberating teachers from the constraints of excessively prescriptive "guidance". However, issuing advice that is permissive without being vague has proved problematic.

In a decentralised programme, a clear separation needs to be made between strategy and operations. Strategy is the function of central government. It needs to be visionary and inspiring, long-term in its implications, limited in quantity and absolutely clear. Only then can it offer the kind of framework within which schools will feel supported and confident in being innovative and creative.

There are grounds for optimism. Progress is being made but much remains to be done. Problems with the proposed new examinations remain unresolved. Many of the experiences and outcomes are obscure and unhelpful. None of these difficulties is insuperable, but action is urgently required. Now is the time for teachers to contribute constructively to the debate. Curriculum for Excellence needs critical friends.

Keir Bloomer was a member of the review group which produced Curriculum for Excellence.

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