With the election over, Douglas Weir calls on Holyrood's politicians to give more direction to curriculum change
AN unexpected, but significant, issue has emerged from two recent but unrelated research projects in which I have been involved. It can be succinctly put in the form of a simple question: "Who is running Scottish education?" From talking with teachers, headteachers and local authority managers, I have come to the conclusion that the curriculum in Scottish secondary schools is not being actively managed by any leadership group. As others have recently commented: "We have lots of planning, but little direction." How has this happened and what should we do about it?
In large part the present situation has been created by the success of the Munn committee. This gave us a structure of a curriculum divided into eight modes. Each subject could be allocated to one of these modes, examinations were set in each subject and that pattern then flowed easily into the fifth-year norm of Highers in four or five subjects. Anything that didn't have a subject label was not assessed by the Scottish Examination Board and was fitted into the timetable at the discretion of the school, as added value to the pupil experience but not part of the national entitlement.
And so, for almost 25 years, school staffing, assessment and curriculum development were based on a relatively stable framework and the profession was able to take the curriculum as a "given". Just as in the 1970s when the introduction of comprehensive schools (and latterly Standard grade) caused a loss of interest in educational measurement, so too the success of the Munn report caused a reduction in debate about curriculum to the point where it is the one topic which I find student teachers talk least about.
In the late 1990s, that all changed and assessment became the area of greatest discussion. Higher Still and National Qualifications arrived, more and more concern was expressed over the apparent failure of S1 and S2, and the Scottish Parliament appeared. It is difficult to say which of these factors is the most important but my sense is that it is the simultaneous arrival of the Parliament (with time to spend on education) and National Qualifications (with the framework to certificate everything).
The scale of the education remit of the devolved Parliament as a proportion of the total remit is such that the Executive and Parliament spend more time on education than most national legislatures, and have to justify that time by being seen to be busy. Local authorities and schools have been bombarded with documents advocating more citizenship, more enterprise, more flexibility, more social inclusion, a new approach to S1 and S2, and much more.
Three possible reactions to this policy ferment are emerging. Some schools will do as little as possible unless they are about to be inspected. Some schools will try to reflect all the changes in some form or other and risk the overload that creates for teachers and pupils. Some schools will be highly selective, choosing those changes which reinforce the goals they have set for themselves. None of these is a satisfactory response.
What I judge headteachers in secondary schools to be longing for is a clear direction from the centre of government and an opportunity to contribute to setting that direction. They do not wish to disadvantage their pupils but wish to know what is now assumed to be the curricular entitlement for all pupils. There was a time when direction came about because there was significant overlap in membership of the policy-making bodies such as the former Scottish Office, the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum.
If that overlap in the policy community is not to return - although voices are raised in support of reinventing the Advisory Council on Education - it is the responsibility of those who produce the snowstorms of recommendations to get together to map out the priority, order and sequence for implementing curricular change. If schooling is to make sense to teachers and pupils alike, there has to be consensus on the national curriculum.
At present, the enthusiasm in the Scottish Executive for devolved management of schools extends to devolved responsibility for the curriculum. Schools make local decisions without having guidance about what constitutes an appropriate curriculum. They are limited in their decisions only by their ability to persuade staff to teach beyond their normal subject boundaries, and by the view of staff and parents on the extent to which certification of the curriculum is desirable.
ome teachers have a desire to experiment and to expand learning opportunities for pupils. Some schools find valid and credible ways of recognising pupil achievements outside the confines of the Scottish Qualifications Authority catalogue. Most schools do neither, not from lack of will but from lack of guidance.
As the Scottish election campaign showed, political parties presented wish lists of individual policies. They need to do more. If they produced a list where each policy had a priority order and where the impact of that policy on other policies was evaluated, schools would welcome this. The political parties which then formed the governing coalition after this week would have a mandate and clarity in the order of policy implementation.
These are not narrow questions about how schools should choose between Standard grade and National Qualifications, or about whether or not courses should lead to SQA certification. They are fundamental questions about the curriculum which we believe that all pupils should experience so that they can be best equipped to meet their own and society's goals.
Douglas Weir works in the faculty of education at Strathclyde University.