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Time to rejuvenate a Victorian curriculum

It's not relevant to the real world and it doesn't produce the right results, says Douglas Osler

The curriculum isn't working. In The TES Scotland, in June of this year, I wrote about enterprise education and remarked that "much of our curriculum is dictated by tradition, not by relevance to the needs of young people in this century". By and large we operate a Victorian curriculum tinkered with in the Munn report, updated grudgingly in content from time to time in some subjects and with a few additions when new content could no longer be denied a place.

Beyond that, the curriculum has been harmed by disjointed reform programmes initiated by ministers who responded to immediate need for change but were not in office long enough to see through a comprehensive curricular review.

So, Standard grade was introduced before 5-14, which in turn was implemented before attention turned to reform of S5-S6. That order made no sense and led to a curriculum that lacks progression and relevance.

The Munn report of the 1970s came up with modes as a means of managing choice in an overcrowded curriculum, but the modes never had an intellectually respectable rationale. It might be sensible to study either history or geography or modern studies, but by no stretch of the imagination does one of these represent the others in skills, content or style of learning. That problem exists in all the columns where there is a choice. It would have been more honest to admit that pupils have to select from the available subjects and will miss out on some skills and content.

If learning is lifelong, that shouldn't matter.

The curriculum is not working for three main reasons. First, much of it does not prepare pupils for contemporary society or for their future world of employment. They wade through content in many subjects that is interesting enough but of little practical use and often the useful fails to make an impact because it is unrelated to current practice.

Second, it is not working for the many who are apathetic, angry or absent.

Behaviour in school cannot all be blamed on children's social problems or on changes in society. Much of it is caused by boredom because what they are asked to do does not seem to them to be relevant. Many young people are turned off not by learning but by what they are asked to learn. They can't square what they do in school with the world they see and they are often right.

Third, the curriculum is not working because it is not providing the expected springboard for improved examination results which was meant to come from the new Highers. The standard response was that results would improve when 5-14 worked through but we are now beyond the point when that dividend should have come in. The problem lies not so much in the senior school but earlier on, particularly in S1-S2 where education does not catch children's interest. It was always acknowledged that the Higher Still reforms would be accompanied by a thorough review of upper primary and early secondary education. It is timely that the present minister is turning his mind to this but there are powerful interests vested in the status quo.

So what are the solutions? Progress in the core skills of literacy and numeracy is the starting point, and it should be recorded, and monitored, in detail from primary 1 to the end of schooling. These skills are the building blocks of the curriculum. Some subjects will always have to be compulsory and should be constructed as courses progressing incrementally from P6 to S4. The division of courses into three blocks, to P7, S1-S2, then S3-S4, is bad educational practice. Starting these new courses at P6 acknowledges that the integrated approach of early primary should give way to enabling pupils to understand that subjects are separate entities with their own skills and content.

Deciding what should be compulsory during statutory schooling is part of the debate and should emerge from a consensus view about what is useful to young people in this century. That may be a recipe for a century of disagreement but the end result should include at least English, numeracy, maybe some mathematics, sciences, computing, physical education and history.

The question mark over mathematics allows for advice to be taken on whether maths rather than basic numeracy remains a relevant study for all pupils.

Evidence must be sought to establish whether the mathematics currently demanded to Standard grade is of relevance to all pupils or only to those who need the advanced content to support other parts of their learning.

Mathematics has a case to make.

Computing has to take its place because it is too uncertain to rest on the argument that computing should permeate all subjects instead of standing alone. It should do both and is now an essential life skill for all.

The sciences should be taught as separate disciplines, presumably chemistry and physics with biology as a later option. The tired compromise of S1-S2 integrated science would be laid to rest.

History for all is important for social cohesion and national identity and should have a substantial Scottish element. There is a claim too for a modern European language to be included - but we need innovative ways of achieving that and I will comment on that on another day.

Having costed the time for these required studies, there will be little space left. That means we can drop the fillers which have crept into the curriculum in S1-S2 and the frivolous options that are offered in a few schools. There really is no excuse for making some studies which have a few valuable elements into two-year courses. Home economics has worthwhile content but not for two years for all and it is not alone. Classical studies is interesting general knowledge but not a necessary school subject.

So, a second category of important content would be distilled from subjects that were no longer compulsory and would be offered as modules to be completed before leaving at a point to be negotiated with the pupil, not at a preset time.

A third category would be elective. The current curriculum is weakened by too much expensive choice but there is a place for representing courses of particular local relevance. These would depend on local circumstances, employment opportunities and available expertise. The emphasis would be on experience rather than content as the formal curriculum tends to emphasise content and skills with a casual emphasis on experiences. That needs to change.

Of course, the really important influence in learning is the quality of the interaction in the classroom but teachers can't be expected to motivate young people to learn unless they can demonstrate the value of what they have to offer. They need better tools to work with and a comprehensive curriculum review is overdue.

Douglas Osler is former head of HM Inspectorate of Education.

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