We are getting lost in pursuit of excellence

Education Scotland is a cautious organisation, not given to grandstanding. So you know something is afoot when it starts chattering excitedly about breaking new ground and doing something that no education system has ever managed before.

Last week we reported that Scotland could soon boast the first curriculum in the world that updates itself continually. With the help of 13 new forums of experts from schools and beyond, so the plan goes, never again will teachers have to endure a "big bang" of educational reform.

This is the sort of thing that Curriculum for Excellence should be about - a fresh, inspiring riposte to education's failings in days gone by. But there is, of course, an inherent irony. To some, CfE has already turned stale (see pages 6-7).

The national debate that preceded CfE took place in 2002. Back then, UK prime minister David Cameron was an obscure backbench MP, Lady Gaga's fame amounted to a one-minute appearance in The Sopranos and "you tube" was no more than a Scottish term of abuse.

CfE's subsequent progress has, by comparison, been incremental. Or, if you're less charitable, tortuously slow. This is in part a result of some of Scottish education's strengths: its stability, emphasis on collaboration and a shared sense of purpose. But when change is this glacial, we risk inertia.

In the Scottish Parliament last week, Conservative education spokeswoman Mary Scanlon was alarmed by a debate on the new curriculum and qualifications, which, she said, seemed not to have progressed in 15 years. She recalled discussions about education taking place in the years after Parliament reconvened in 1999 in which a system was envisaged that no longer pivoted on end-of-year exams.

But Ms Scanlon had seen few signs that this had happened. Her appraisal of last week's proceedings was blunt: "In all the focus on assessment, has the ethos of Curriculum for Excellence been lost? We are certainly not talking about it."

At the same meeting, Ken Muir, the General Teaching Council for Scotland's chief executive, said: "I think we still have some way to go in terms of teachers' - and in some cases headteachers' - understanding of the basic philosophy of what Curriculum for Excellence is trying to achieve."

And there's the rub. Thousands of Scottish teachers are doing innovative things in classrooms, and many headteachers and education officials ardently want to put a stop to formal education's obsession with exams. But how can you put the past behind you if you don't really know where you are supposed to be going?

An old trick for business start-ups and creative writing students is to get them to sum up their idea in a sentence. If they can't, the idea needs to be honed or scrapped.

Imagine asking Scotland's 50,000-plus teachers to describe CfE in a sentence. What would emerge - a clarity of purpose or a cacophony of dissension?


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