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Two cultures of a child-centred approach

The report of the Scottish headteacher recruitment and retention survey tells of a core job which has become overloaded and unattractive. Curriculum for Excellence is founded on a new collegiate and participatory culture, re-empowering schools through heightened autonomy, giving them latitude to deepen learning.

Yet the report has uncovered a different overall outlook by headteachers steering the curriculum changes in schools. It is not surprising that the Scottish Government is downplaying the findings. But this must not be swept aside. In reconciling these, a new way forward may be found.

Scottish schools are coming out of a phase of tightly-bound programmes, elaborated content, top-heavy planning, time balances and over-riding emphasis on attainment. Audit had shifted to fixed measures, specifications, scaled indicators and idealised descriptors of grade levels. Accountability had become the imposition of external judgment. Inspection had turned into quasi-judicial process, rendered by snapshot. Evaluation had narrowed in meaning to grading.

CfE is leading us towards new principles of experiential relevance, contextual linkage, wider capacities and deeper potentialities beyond attainment. Assessment is for Learning is placing new emphasis on identifying and assisting paths forward in pupil learning. Through this, a child-centred approach is re-emerging in a modern guise.

But the culture and approach of the previous phase has not simply gone away. Could it be that there are two cultures - one dominant in development and curriculum direction, but another in external management of schools, inspection and quality assurance? Could this be the explanation for the core findings of the report?

If so, it would not be surprising that headteachers find themselves increasingly under pressure, pulled in two directions. It is not that the headteacher's job is difficult or challenging, but that it is subject to change forces and institutional pressures which are in conflict. Those doing the job are being pushed around, subject to public commentary, and with no right of reply, from different and conflicting perspectives on education.

It is essential now that the institutions above schools come completely into line with the content, principles and framework of the new curriculum. The whole of the system must now be signed up to Curriculum for Excellence. In this way, core tensions affecting the headteacher role, at this critical time of transition, may be lifted.

Resistance is not coming from a profession opposed to the direction or implementation of the new curriculum. Drag and delay is occurring through mismatch between what the key national players are saying and what is happening. The retention and recruitment survey profoundly highlights this, not just in its report, but by the fact of the study itself.

Why did the headteacher recruitment and retention problem have to be the subject of a separate study commissioned by the Government? Why is this data not being produced by Scotland's own systems of HMIE inspection and local authority quality assurance? The reason is that these have not been the questions asked.

The incoming curriculum philosophy and approach, therefore, requires a profoundly new approach for quality review. We can no longer have it done to us and for us. Evaluation needs to become a formative process, founded on solution-focus and assessment for learning. Accountability must shift to become moderation of process, focused on realising learning pathways.

This way, the shifts in the content and nature of curriculum, and the forms and methods of learning for pupils, may then be matched by a similarly transformative change in how Scottish education reviews itself and learns about learning.

Niall MacKinnon is a headteacher in the Highlands.

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