We need better connections for CfE and National exams

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
It's time the cabinet secretary set up an advisory group to bring some sense of direction

As you survey the educational landscape at present, do you feel confident about the future, reassured about policy, direction and leadership, certain that you have internalised all that you need to know? No, I thought not.

Have you had enough of political pronouncements based on assertions rather than evidence; of one document after another just being the bland following the bland or providing proof of the justification of applying the acronym "SBO" (Stating the bleeding obvious!) in the best Sybil Fawlty tradition? Do you feel like Peter Finch in the film Network, who wanted to throw open his window and shout out, "I am mad as hell and I've had enough?"

All these feelings are perfectly understandable. There is such a level of change being expected that it is easy to comprehend the level of uncertainty, disquiet, even anger, expressed by members of the profession. What can be done to improve the situation?

While the opportunity to make sense of Curriculum for Excellence and other educational developments as a cohesive and coherent expression of the direction of education has been missed in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the profession first, and other stakeholders during this period, it is not too late to rescue the situation. This has been a failure of political and educational leadership, but it can be rectified.

Since a main aim of Curriculum for Excellence is to raise attainment, the cabinet secretary should set up one of his favoured advisory groups drawn from schools, universities and agencies to produce a coherent message, fleshed out with exemplars, and take it around the country to convince the profession that what they are doing and what needs to be done makes sense. In other words, connections need to be made.

At the same time, the mixed messages need to be nailed. We had been told this was an evolutionary process; now, at this stage, we are being advised that the curriculum model is compulsory. That is not what guidance means. What price personalisation and choice? What happened to the "bespoke" curriculum responsive to local needs as the cabinet secretary stated? Do the views of pupils, parents and staff which differ count for nothing in this process?

One of the main benefits of the programme was supposed to be that it provided freedom for teachers to decide about the best opportunities for teaching and learning for their classes. Teachers want the best for their pupils and they are seeking reassurance that what they are teaching and how they are teaching is on the right track. Mechanistic arguments framed as 2+2+2 or 3+3 offer no solution but rather cloud the issue.

The main focus has to be the education of the whole child meeting the individual needs as far as possible. Instead, we are involved in a redundant, pointless argument about the timing of option choices. The laudable aim of a broad general education cannot result in treading water in S3 as well as previously in S1 and S2. Nor can we duplicate the two- term dash of S5 in S4 with a narrower range of subjects to study, reducing choice and limiting future opportunities.

If Level 4 experiences and outcomes broadly match National 4 requirements, then an S3 pupil who is already secure at Level 3 should be able to work at that level and be prepared for examinations in S4. In addition, if schools have a track record of success in gaining qualifications and securing positive destinations, why would a school jeopardise that for a leap into the unknown?

What has been sinister about this whole argument has been the notion that if a school has adopted a different model, then there needs to be re- education. It smacks of the ideology of the Chinese Cultural Revolution - people need to be brainwashed into thinking the "right" way. There have been veiled threats that money may not be provided to pay for qualifications above the number implied in the guidance.

There's the rub: it is guidance, not statute. In a situation where the profession has been calling out for clarity for a long time, educational administrators come late to the table to lay down the law on this one issue. Where a school has consulted everyone concerned, has a proven track record of success and is responding to the needs of individuals as well as the community, it flies in the face of the principles of Curriculum for Excellence for that school to be denigrated and labelled in a derogatory manner.

Assertions are made that attainment will be raised, literacy and numeracy will improve and so will destinations. Yet, in the real world, we know this will only happen as a result of the hard work, commitment and drive of teachers and all the other staff in schools.

Give them the tools to do the job: get rid of the iniquity which sees two similar schools have a disparity of funding and staffing, whereby one has double the funding and 20 more teachers than the other; end the betrayal of probationers and NQTs by investing in more teaching posts from some of the millions which the Scottish government is unable to spend each year. Implement in full the Cameron proposals on devolved school management, together with the Donaldson review recommendations. Then we might see the clarity of vision and sense of direction so greatly desired.

Brian Cooklin is headteacher of Stonelaw High, South Lanarkshire.

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