Gaynor Allen: CfE fails the parental test
THE government, local authorities and schools must work harder to get the message over to a suspicious public just how successful the Curriculum for Excellence truly is, writes Gaynor Allen
I was at a function where everyone is separated from people they know and was making polite small talk with the man sitting next to me. We discovered we both had daughters who had just sat their Standard grades and, after a few minutes, he said how pleased he was that his girl had “escaped Curriculum For Excellence”.
As a supporter of the biggest change to come out of Scottish education for generations, I was shocked by his remark. I have three more children who I thought were very privileged to be studying and sitting exams under CfE, yet this man thought very differently.
When I asked why he was so negative, he replied: “Well, no-one understands it do they? And the only things you read about it are very negative.”
I am a member of two parent councils in East Lothian – a primary and a secondary – and have spent many hours talking about CfE or, listening to other people talk about it. My second child is in the S3 “guinea pig” year of pupils who will sit the new National qualifications for the first time in 2014, so it would have been remiss of me not to have discovered more about it. Yet when I asked friends, all of whom have school-age children, what they thought about it, I found that my positive view is very much in the minority. Parents in general are suspicious and negative about Curriculum for Excellence.
In East Lothian, we have two educational Quality Improvement Officers dedicated to CfE, and as a representative of parents I was asked to be on the interview panel to appoint them. I bumped into one of them the night after I met the CfE critic at the function and asked her if his view reflected what parents thought. Yes, she said, it was. So why is this? Do people not remember/know that CfE is the result of a national debate in Scotland about how to educate young people for life and work in the 21st century? It is a comprehensive rethink of why and how we educate young people, a holistic approach designed to make pupils more involved in their education. It is revolutionary and, personally, I am excited about it.
With my eldest daughter in S5 now doing her Highers and my son in S3, I’m in a good position to take a view on the old and new systems. In S2, they both did the same topic on hostile environments and looked at a tribe living in Peru. My daughter was asked to “describe the Yanomami tribe” in an essay. Two years later, my son’s task was along the lines of “imagine you were flying across the Amazon and needed to make an emergency landing. You landed next to the Yanomami tribe, describe what you experience”. The first essay was easy to cut and paste to get a good mark, while the second made the kids think more imaginatively and produced a much better read. Same subject, but a totally different – and improved – way of studying it.
So why are parents suspicious and not more engaged in the biggest educational change in a generation? And can anything be done? First, the Scottish Government needs to accept the central problem – how CfE has been, and is, communicated. Let’s start with the name. Who decided to call it Curriculum for Excellence and why? It is not a new curriculum, but a philosophy of education. There are a few curricular changes, which you would expect, but CfE is not a massive shake-up of what is studied – the real change is in how it is delivered.
It says that we can do better in Scotland, we can create an education system that makes our kids think for themselves so that they will learn more and be better people at the end of it. It aims to show children how to become better citizens by celebrating successes and encouraging them to achieve greater success. As a result of this, they will become more confident and be able to give more to our society.
The ideas behind CfE are sensible, practical and achievable, yet anyone who has tried to find out about it on Education Scotland’s website would end up baffled and confused. Any new change in education seems to bring with it a whole new set of jargon and parents switch off because letters and websites use a form of communication only understood by those inside the education bubble.
The terminology of CfE is just the latest in a series of private languages that both alienates and confuses parents. For example, Education Scotland’s website says of CFE: “The attributes and capabilities can be used by establishments as a guide to check whether the curriculum for any individual child or young person sufficiently reflects the purposes of the curriculum.”
Does anyone actually understand this? Does the person who wrote it understand it? This is pure gobbledegook – writing that was never meant to be read. If you are going to communicate a new system, you have to do so in a way people can understand. Surely the Education Scotland website is one of the first places you would expect parents to look for answers – yet I imagine anyone reading such jargon would immediately log off and go for a lie down.
Parents also turn to their child’s school, but many meetings are also delivered using the latest private language. It can be very simple. External assessments? Why can’t we just stick with “exams”, then we all know where we are?
Most parents I know are starting to get a grip on the new exam system, but the structure of the junior and senior phase in schools is where things become complicated. CfE has an element of flexibility about how schools organise themselves, but this is causing confusion.
Some new elements have been introduced, such as personal profiles for all pupils, but how well have these been communicated? I feel pretty well-informed in general, but I am only just starting to understand about these profiles, to record and recognise personal achievements – in sport, music or other activities both inside and outside school.
The Parental Involvement Bill gave parents in Scotland greater powers and made it a right and duty for each school to engage with them in a meaningful way. If we take CfE as an example, the Scottish Government has failed to do this; the communication of CfE has not worked for parents.
Individual schools have a duty to explain CfE, and I feel my children’s schools have made a pretty good attempts at this, though the jargon still slips in too often. Yet, I have heard of many schools where parents feel that communication has been very poor and sometimes almost nonexistent.
So, many parents turn to the media for help and are given a largely negative view. Again, much of the negativity is about whether schools and teachers are ready for CfE and not necessarily about whether it is a good idea.
It is sloppy to just blame the press as the government, local authorities and schools are all to blame for not communicating CfE better in the first place. If they had done so, parents would be better able to draw their own conclusions. For my part, the confusion and negativity over CfE lies mainly at the door of the Scottish Government. If parents are to be properly engaged, they should be demanding websites they can understand and newsletters that they will read and not just chuck into the recycling bin.
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