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Think inside the box

The new curricululm allows us to build on current practices

A curriculum for Excellence is radically different from the reforms we have experienced in the past: it focuses on the whole of education from 3-18, not on specific stages of schooling.

While previous reform programmes have concentrated on attainment, either in redesign of qualifications frameworks or in establishing levels of expected performance at 5-14, this reform impacts on the totality of what the learner experiences.

While previous reforms diluted the professionalism of staff through "prescriptive" materials, this reform enhances and builds upon the professionalism of staff.

And while previous reforms have adopted a power-coercive approach, this focuses on local interpretation.

In raising awareness among FE staff of the reform programme, we have found a variety of responses, from "we do this anyway" to "show us how to do it". Colleges recognise that current practice can be reframed in terms of the new curriculum.

That is encouraging: any successful reform, particularly on this scale, needs to build on existing practice. It is, therefore, a progressive agenda for colleges. There was a time when the mantra for colleges was to "think outside the box". As they became incorporated bodies and were given responsibility for their own destiny, there was an acceptance that a successful college would be one which used its new-found freedom to generate new markets and new ways of doing things. This put the sector in a good place - the "can do" sector.

But ACfE reform is a time for thinking inside the box, building on current practices and thinking about them differently. There are at least two boxes of opportunity - learning and delivery.

In terms of learning, the college curriculum is not well understood. Its diversity of provision and experiences provided to learners, along with the limited (and often second-hand) experiences of those from the external world, have led to a multitude of perspectives. But it is difficult for colleges to play their full part if other elements of the system do not understand their potential contribution more fully.

In articulating the college curriculum, strengthening school links has led to a sense of common purpose. But there is a tendency for colleges to be seen as suppliers of vocational experiences, rather than joint partners in developing the capacities of young people. We must continue to challenge the sterile and regressive academicvocational "divide", recognising that we all strive to achieve "skills for life, skills for work and skills for learning" - or, as HMIE puts it, "an appropriate education for all".

In terms of delivery, all college learners must be given a "curriculum for excellence" which cannot be restricted to the 3-18 age group. If reform is founded on changes to learning and teaching, it cannot be offered to some and denied to others.

The age profile of college students, their varying length of engagement with a college, and outside influences on the curriculum (particularly from employers) suggest that it is through evolution of pedagogy that the influence of ACfE will bear fruit.

It must build on holistic learning, acknowledging that the college curriculum has evolved over the years beyond technical, job-related skills. Qualifications must be refreshed and prescription reduced, while maintaining the demands of national standards.

The assessment burden must be tackled, although this is not simply about the number of assessments but their nature: there is an over-reliance on "safe", traditional written assessments and a reluctance to explore and implement alternatives.

Students coming to college from school will expect opportunities for progression as more confident individuals, more successful learners, more effective contributors and more responsible citizens. Colleges must ensure learners build on previous experience and achievement.

Enhancing the professionalism of staff will be a critical factor. That will be reflected in giving them greater freedom to shape the curriculum, inspiring learners with modern approaches to teaching, learning and assessment - as well as a commitment to continuing professional development and expanding the capacity for networking.

A curriculum reform on this scale will need to be underpinned with significant development activity at all levels. This will require clarity on the college curriculum, its shape, qualities and delivery.

John McCann is depute chief executive of the Scottish Further Education Unit.

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