ESCAPE FROM A CURRICULUM OF CHECKLISTS

During term 2009-2010, my final one before ‘escaping’ to my new life, we were required to design a ‘new’ course for incoming first year students. This had to comply with the requirements of the much heralded ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ (CfE). The documentation that accompanied this initiative certainly accounted for many trees, yet often seemed filled with non-specific aspirational statements, offering little in the way of practical help regarding how the aims were to be achieved. Much time and money had been invested in in-service training and I often found myself sitting awaiting some expert speaker, looking at the official Powerpoint presentation title graphic, a photograph apparently looking down a spiral stairway – it always brought the phrase ‘downward spiral’ to mind. It didn’t help when the keynote speaker at one meeting, one of the principal architects of CfE, noted that Scottish education was now improving since they had managed to achieve an all graduate entry to the profession. As a non ‘graduate’, that certainly didn’t do much to bring me on-side!

I frequently found myself asking what I believed to be an essential question; “these new courses must adequately prepare students for the next stages in their education and articulate with the subsequent steps towards their certification, before attempting to specify an appropriate course for S1 (secondary year 1) can we please be given specific details about the structure and format of the new examinations that the students will be faced with so that we can design courses appropriately?” Whilst teachers should certainly not only be teaching towards exam success, I believed that it was essential to ensure that we would at least be aiming in the correct direction. I never did get an answer, only encouragement not to worry about such irrelevant details. The whole landscape of Scottish secondary education was in the process of being radically overhauled, with a claimed increase in freedom and flexibility for teachers to explore allegedly exciting inter-disciplinary projects. Sadly, I never recognised any such increased freedom – I only experienced increasing restrictive direction that outlined exactly what could and couldn’t be done, and all in the ongoing absence of clarity and specification of the courses and certification requirements that would follow on in the years ahead. How were we expected to plan such an important journey when the destination was unknown?

Despite still having a passion for education and helping young people to achieve their full potential, I was so relieved when I was able to secure an early retirement package and thereby remove myself from a situation where I was feeling increasingly frustrated and no longer ‘fit for purpose’. Tick box check lists and middle managers lacking in subject expertise were everywhere It seemed that if you couldn’t tick a box, you shouldn’t be wasting time on it. Where is the flexibility when every student is expected to have every box ticked? In common with many other teachers of a similar vintage, I had no need to maintain the possibility of a ‘good reference’ to support future job prospects, consequently I didn’t hold back when faced with things that didn’t seem right. I have no doubt that the school management were quite happy to have been given the opportunity to help us on our way to retiral.

When I heard peopl refer to the new scheme as ‘A Curriculum for Excrement’ it seemed so right, even if it did expose a certain degree of cynicism. I remember being in a queue in a local supermarket and overhearing two parents in discussion, “are you going to tonight’s meeting at the school about the curriculum for exercise?” The reply was an emphatic, “no, why do I need to know about that?” Clearly the school in question still had some way to go to clarify its communications with parents.

Now, two years on, the cohort that moved up to secondary school in the session after my retiral, are about to move into the first crucial examination/certification phase of this ‘brave new world’. Sadly I still hear and see items in the media that suggest an answer to my question still hasn’t been provided. I listened to ‘Brian’s Big Debate’ on Radio Scotland yesterday and one of the questions was about the suggestion that schools who did not feel ready to move on to the new exam schedule should be allowed to defer for a year. The comments from panel and audience did little to reassure me.

Comments following a related article in a recent edition of The Scotsman include:

  • ‘Inspectors to carry out an audit. What a farce. “If there is any doubt or lack of confidence within a school, the first step will be to provide whatever support is necessary.” How about giving them the course details a year ago. For the teacher bashers who come on here I am going to give you a task. Write a 4th yr course with the intent of sitting an exam at the end and I will give you the course details after you have written it.’
  • There have been huge amounts of documentation available for years. The problem is that it’s been woolly and largely meaningless. Statements of well meaning platitudes. A lot of it has also been willfully obscure and largely incomprehensible to the teaching staff who will have to implement CfE. 4). As to what the whole scheme is for; to be frank I’m not entirely sure. From what I can make out all Scottish pupils are to receive lots of enriched educational experiences, come out of the top end of schools as well rounded, excellently educated individuals and be happy for evermore. The sun is also to shine each and every day with light rain at night, when we are asleep, to keep everything fresh and green. We will have 8% economic growth and free lollipops as well. The problem is that there appears to be huge gaps in describing how all this is to be achieved.

Admittedly, there is a degree of sarcasm contained, but it all seems painfully reminiscent of what I was thinking two years ago. Has so little progress really be made? People have often remarked to me that I must be glad to be out of teaching and away from all those terrible, ill-disciplined youngsters. My reply has always been that the young people weren’t the problem, although they could undoubtedly be demanding and challenging – it was the fact that the Scottish educational landscape had become too hostile for me to wish to continue trying to battle with changed management structures and an increasingly interfering and prescriptive Government. I just hope that the young ‘guinea pigs’ that are about to be processed through the CfE system will manage to succeed and achieve their potential, despite well-meaning Government efforts that seem more inclined to thwart this. In the meantime I continue to look forward to the many new challenges that face me outside the sphere of the formal education system.

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