Will they or won't they?

2nd January 2009 at 00:00

One of the new courses we are offering in 2009 is "Curriculum for Excellence: The Wowtcomes". It is aimed at primary teachers and run by my colleague Margaret Byrne, who worked in primary schools through the 5-14 years.

Margaret was not only an outstanding head, but an able curriculum leader who embraced 5-14, using it to bring more consistency and rigour into the primary curriculum without stifling good practice. She supported teachers to use strategies, such as backwards and forwards mapping, to relate what they wanted to do and thought was relevant.

We need senior staff in secondary schools to follow people like Margaret and be curriculum leaders. And 2009 should be used to take the opportunity that the extra year affords to really start experimenting with the outcomes, particularly to see how they can be used to stop teaching to the test in S1-3 and to promote more active joined-up learning.

It won't be easy. That's why we are also offering a secondary course, which will look at how to do this and will draw on examples of good practice from secondaries. This course will not use the term "wowtcomes". We have joked that a more appropriate term might be the "won'tcomes"! Some secondary teachers appear to think that, if they wait long enough, ACfE will go away, like 5-14 did.

To be fair, it's understandable that teachers want more support nationally to make sense of the outcomes. It's not secondary teachers' fault that they are used to teaching to past papers rather than outcomes. That's what the system has pushed them into doing.

It appears to me that a strong desire to promote what is not easily measurable by standard tests lies behind the reluctance nationally to put more meat on the bones of the published outcomes. There is a worry that being more specific about what is required at each level will lead ultimately to teaching to the test. But we need to be more specific in these important "softer" areas, not simply in order to set national standards but for formative purposes: to help teachers and students know what success looks like.

I'm concerned that many of the learning and thinking skills required to develop the four capacities do not appear explicitly in the outcome statements or are hidden away in the health and well-being proposals.

England has taken a different route. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has identified and brought together 12 "personal learning and thinking skills" as being essential in life learning and work. What the QCA has not done is to specify what these skills might look like at different levels. Our parent company, Cambridge Education, has done that. They developed ladders that specify the QCA skills at nine different levels in some detail, from pre-primary to Masters degree.

It also offers a ground-breaking webtool called "Personalisation by Pieces", linked to the skills ladders. This allows individual learners to submit evidence online to show that they have reached a particular level and be peer-assessed online by students anywhere in the UK, or beyond, who have already reached that level.

We mapped these skills ladders onto the four capacities of the Curriculum for Excellence and sent a free copy to every secondary school in Scotland. The poster has aroused considerable interest, not only in schools. People do recognise that, if we are serious about the capacities, we need to specify them in more detail.

We can't back off from this because we fear that it will allow the examination tail to wag the curriculum dog. We need curriculum leadership at national as well as school level.

(Thanks to Marel Harper of Renfrewshire Council for coining the term "wowtcomes")

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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