What is answer to this key question?

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Gordon Lawrie, Portobello High, Edinburgh

Right at the heart of the debate surrounding A Curriculum for Excellence is the issue of what we are trying to achieve in education. On one side stand those who see education as a process, a journey in which what is learned is far less important than the experience of learning it. On the other lie those who want children to learn specific things, core pieces of knowledge on which they can build future learning.

A Curriculum for Excellence favours the process approach of course, but it's very unclear what this new curriculum is trying to proceed towards; indeed, until now, that's been the major complaint about it.

Jaye Richards (April 17) was at great pains to identify herself as a teacher first and foremost, with the implication that she could teach anything at a push. This must be music to the ears of any school manager, but I wonder just how excited parents will be to hear that there are biologists queuing up to teach maths, or perhaps historians ready to teach music, or craft, design and technology (CDT) teachers French.

Personally, I'm glad my children were taught by teachers who had studied their subjects for several years at higher-education level. My guess is that, when it comes to teaching science, a science degree must be something of a prerequisite for answering the questions of enquiring minds. Those who want to gauge the effect of non-specialist teachers should ask themselves how well we've managed to teach our primary children foreign languages. And yet there are those who would say that French teachers already have the necessary teaching skills to teach Chinese.

Then there are employers and universities, who continually complain that their new arrivals do not possess the knowledge they expect (they frequently refer to skills when they really mean core knowledge). Some of these expectations seem a bit unrealistic but, nevertheless, they are stakeholders in education and, as such, their voice is important. Do they want pupils to be taught by teachers lacking subject expertise?

Finally, we need to engage our pupils themselves; what do they want to be taught and by what sort of people? Of all the stakeholders, logic would suggest that the clients are the most important, and it's patronising to suggest that, just because they're younger, they are incapable of making coherent statements. Let's ask them and find out.

The truth is that A Curriculum for Excellence needs to be debated by more than teachers, managers and academics. Our entire society needs to get involved, asking itself what it really wants from schools, and to be brave enough to accept the responsibility for the decisions it takes.

Not every teacher can be both inspiring and expert. So we all need to decide our answer to this one key question: if push comes to shove, would we rather our children were taught the right stuff poorly, or a load of rubbish well?

Gordon Lawrie is principal teacher of modern studies at Portobello High, Edinburgh.

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