These are interesting times for the future of the curriculum in Scotland’s schools, as a quick tour of the news media this weekend will illustrate. The Sunday Times reports that the Scottish Government will announce plans later this week to ‘press ahead’ with the implementation in August this year of Curriculum for Excellence (see also John Connell’s blog on the subject). This, despite the opposition School Leaders Scotland and the SSTA, the secondary teachers’ union, who argue that it’s all very well for primary schools to implement the changes necessary for reform, but it is unrealistic to ask secondary schools to radically alter their established practices without knowing the nature of future national qualifications*
Meanwhile, in the ‘Ecosse’ section of the newspaper, Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of schools in England and Wales, weeps for the abolition of national tests at the age of 14, and tries to convince us that if they (England) are to return to the halcyon days of education, then the power of the teaching unions ‘has to be broken’ as they obstruct Michael Gove’s promise to ‘replace the skills-obsessed, politically correct, thematically organised national curriculum with a traditional, subject-based approach.’ Personally, I don’t have a problem with a curriculum which is obsessed with developing the skills of its young people, especially if ‘skills’ is preceded by ‘critical’ or ‘thinking’.
Speaking of traditional approaches, the TESS on Friday informs us that for the first time in over 150 years, a new national curriculum will be introduced in Australia, a move which will apparently see an end to attempts to deliver a more integrated experience along the lines of the Queensland rich tasks model which has been admired and emulated in other parts of the world, and a return to subject-based learning and stricter national guidelines. In a spectacular display of obfuscation, it is described by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a ‘back to basics approach that will help restore grammar, history, literature and phonetics to the classroom.’ It is very tempting in times of economic uncertainty to want to return to a time when things were apparently simpler, and greater, to ‘get back to basics’. The Scottish government is to be congratulated for showing a far greater ambition.
On another page of the same edition of TESS, David Cockburn argues that the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence shouldn’t be seen as the end of the educational process, but as ‘philosophical concepts that underpin and inform everything we do.’ He doesn’t elaborate on ‘what everything we do’ should be, although I would guess, by implication, he means more or less what we do at the moment. Seeing the four capacities as the end of the educational process is, he says, ‘vacuous’. On this point I totally disagree. The capacities, or the purposes to give them their original name, do indeed set out the aims of the curriculum – or the ‘end point’ if there could ever be an end point in the activity called learning – and the detail underneath the four headline statements provide as good a description of that well-educated, well-rounded individual as you are likely to find.
*The future of national qualifications remains unclear, although it is also reported in Friday’s TESS that the SQA are promising the new National 4 and 5 qualifications will ‘mark a radical departure from traditional exams’, with case studies, practical tasks and projects playing a greater role in comparison to paper and pencil tests. Whatever form future assessments may take, it is highly probable that the professional judgement of teachers will carry more weight, with a reduction in expensive, bureaucratic, external exams.