A year to map out the future

A Curriculum for Excellence is a major departure for Scottish education, which in the past has relied on edicts from above, rather than organic growth. As the content continues to take shape, teachers are beginning to warm to the central themes, writes Douglas Blane

Nothing like it has been attempted before. Every state school in Scotland will soon be teaching to a new curriculum with the primary aim of producing "successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society".

Children are at the heart of A Curriculum for Excellence but it is teachers who will implement it, so it is understandable that they want to preview its contents. This is only partially possible, says the national co-ordinator for the curriculum, May Sweeney.

"The reason," she explains, "is that the present year of engagement (this school session) is shaping the curriculum of the future.

"Teachers shouldn't try to turn to the back of the book for the answer, because the book hasn't been written."

A year of engagement is an unfamiliar concept for an education system in which national change has always been conceived, elaborated and handed down from on high. "The idea has taken people by surprise," says Mrs Sweeney.

"I've talked to thousands of teachers and lost count of how many times I've been asked 'What is it we should be doing?' "

By the end of the school year, staff in every state school and education authority in the country should have a much clearer idea.

As they wait for presentations from the far-travelled national team, the process needs careful managing. "In a way it's like a huge mixed ability class," says Mrs Sweeney. "However, we know from Assessment is for Learning that if people simply wait for somebody to supply them with practical techniques, there is no lasting impact on their classroom practice. But if they engage early with the big message, the underlying philosophy, then there is."

So, while very detailed guidance on the new curriculum is not possible - or desirable - broad themes are beginning to emerge from the year of engagement and the deliberations of the eight review groups set up by the Scottish Executive to look at subjects, individually and collectively, initially from age 3 to 15.

The most important theme relates to the nature of good curricular guidelines and the way current ones fall short of the ideal. "They are much too prescriptive, too detailed," says Mrs Sweeney.

"The simplified, prioritised guidelines we will produce will give teachers much more space to be creative, to decide how they are going to teach a particular topic and to include valuable learning experiences that suit their own local circumstances."

This is fundamental to the new curriculum, which makes Mrs Sweeney (who is a teacher and headteacher of 30 years' experience) confident that the exercise will not - as critics have suggested - succumb to the "awful conservatism" of Scottish education, leaving little improved.

"The political will now exists to make the genuine changes people have been asking for, streamlining the curriculum, giving teachers time to teach. And teachers, once they see what it's about, are very enthusiastic and committed."

The other major theme arising from engagement with the profession is the importance of Assessment is for Learning as a "main pillar" of A Curriculum for Excellence, says Mrs Sweeney.

"We know, from research, that when teachers are well trained in Assessment is for Learning and work collaboratively with other staff in their school, it has a very positive impact, in the classroom, on the pupils and on the teachers.

"What I found, when I started talking to teachers, was that those who had practical experience of Assessment is for Learning could see right away what A Curriculum for Excellence was about. It was immediate: I could be standing talking to 500 people and I would see heads starting to nod."

The efforts of schools, authorities and the review groups to pare down the curriculum, remove redundancy and make creative connections across subjects is not easy, Mrs Sweeney acknowledges.

"There's no doubt that getting the right balance between guidance that is broad-based and manageable, but detailed enough for people to make sense of, and giving teachers freedom to think about what they teach, while ensuring national consistency, will be tricky. But that's where the process of engagement and the online register of interest from schools are so important."

At the end of this month, a slim document containing the main themes emerging from the year of engagement, interim findings of the review groups and the rationale for change will be published.

"This will give teachers pointers to where the curriculum is going, overall and in particular subject areas," says Mrs Sweeney. "Schools, especially through the register of interest, will then get the opportunity to comment, try some of it for themselves, match it with what they're doing already.

Some might say that what they're doing is entirely consistent with A Curriculum for Excellence."

The road to excellence is already paved with more than good intentions. One of the pleasantest surprises, says the national co-ordinator, has been the speed of the profession's engagement.

"People are grabbing this with both hands. It's the first time in Scottish education that we've had one big statement of what it is we're trying to achieve. Experienced teachers are telling us it's great to be talking about education again. 'It's about time,' they're saying, and 'I'm delighted this is happening before I retire.' "

For information and resources on A Curriculum for Excellence see www.acurriculumforexcellencescotland.gov.uk For the register of interest, add feedback.asp

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