The trouble and truth about Curriculum for Excellence

16th December 2011 at 00:00
When it comes to CfE, what the public sees and the profession knows to be true are two entirely different things

In the public domain, Curriculum for Excellence is already a successful educational initiative, with more success assured. The media presentation of every aspect is relentlessly positive, very similar indeed to the press coverage given to Glow over the years. Politicians at local and national level, HMIs, education officers, educational commentators and contributors to the educational press are all enthusiastic about developments, and paint a picture of revolutionary change for the better. However, talk to teachers and a very different view emerges.

Is it not time to examine the gulf in opinion between the educational establishment and the professionals on the ground? In short, what is it with Curriculum for Excellence?

There are a number of reasons why this development has been problematic, many to do with poor management of the initiative and poor communication with the profession. But these difficulties would have been easily overcome, if the rationale behind the changes had been clear and agreed. And this is the fundamental problem; many teachers simply do not accept that the proposals are an improvement on the current system. Indeed, they may consider them to be to its detriment, and there is no evidence on offer to convince them otherwise. A lot of assertion, certainly, but no evidence.

Three examples illustrate the problem. There will be little disagreement that low levels of skill in literacy or numeracy are a serious barrier to most aspects of learning. In virtually all areas of life, a good start is crucial and educational evidence indicates this. Pupils coming from disadvantaged circumstances find it virtually impossible to overcome this early hurdle.

Similarly, pupils who fail to develop appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy skill in primary school rarely make good this deficit later in the educational process. The CfE solution to this is not, as one might expect, to focus attention on the primary years of schooling but to place responsibility for both onto secondary teachers. Thus we have physics teachers teaching literacy and French teachers teaching numeracy. Why? It is extremely unlikely that they will make a better job of it than primary teachers, or English and mathematics teachers.

Many subject specialists feel ill-equipped and involved in a pretty fruitless exercise, too late in the process to have any impact.

In the meantime, they are spending less time on the subjects in which they have genuine expertise. If this pretty widespread view among secondary teachers is mistaken, then where is the evidence that the new approach will be effective, and that their suspicion that this is a gross waste of time is false?

Even the principles of CfE do not elicit universal support. "Confident individuals", for example, strikes no chord with many teachers for whom a significant part of the day may have involved dealing with the over- confident arrogance of pupils, in relation to both learning and behaviour. Lack of confidence is not an issue for most pupils. There is a suspicion that this principle emanates from those who do not deal with young people on a daily basis and who are harking back to an era in which children were reared quite differently from today.

Nor does confidence correlate positively with successful learning; the most successful learners are rarely confident, for the very good reason that they fully appreciate, however well they are performing in school, how little they actually know. Confidence should follow hard-won, genuine achievement. As an aim in itself, it leads to manufactured success for fairly trivial achievements and debases the currency of real achievement.

Now, if one of the principles of CfE were to encourage pupils to work hard, persevere in the face of difficulty and deal positively with disappointment, then more teachers might be in support. Teachers' perceptions of the pupil attributes which lead to successful learning, perceptions which are based on years of experience, are at odds with the perceptions of the educational establishment.

Yet no evidence has been advanced to convince teachers that their perceptions are incorrect; that, despite all appearances to the contrary, lack of confidence is a barrier to pupil achievement.

Finally, interdisciplinary learning, advocated by CfE, is a whole bone of contention in its own right. Why is taking a teacher out of his comfort zone a good thing? Do you wish to be treated by a doctor who is operating out of his comfort zone? The logic of interdisciplinary learning is that I will make better progress in German if the teacher is not fluent in German but pretty good at French or Spanish. In the language of Homer Simpson, "D'oh!"

The resistance of secondary teachers to interdisciplinary learning is not based on cussedness; it is based on teachers' very real concerns that instead of using their subject expertise to deliver quality education, they are to fumble through content areas with which they are relatively, or completely, unfamiliar. Achieving excellence seems like a distant pipedream if even the teachers lack expertise in the subject under discussion.

Much of CfE runs counter to teachers' experience, training and intuition. Where is the solid evidential and intellectual basis for CfE developments? Education is a serious business and it matters too much to too many people to be treated in a cavalier manner, with changes based on current fashions rather than data, experience, expertise or hard fact.

What is it with Curriculum for Excellence? It's the evidence, stupid. (With apologies to Bill Clinton)

Carole Ford, former head of Kilmarnock Academy and a former president of School Leaders Scotland, retired this year.

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