Carole Ford: Scottish students will fail in a flawed system

The revision list matched the order of the exam the pupils sat
The revision list matched the order of the exam the pupils sat
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DOUBTS teaching staff have voiced 
on the Curriculum 
for Excellence offer a genuine cause for concern, writes Carole Ford

Negativity surrounding Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has been variously attributed to misunderstanding on the part of teachers and parents, misinterpretation of the documentation or, more recently, poor communication on the part of government, local authorities or schools. In an article in this newspaper last month Gaynor Allen concluded that poor communication lies at the heart of parental concerns. Education secretary Michael Russell responded with an impressive list of publications and communication strategies which have already been deployed, with a firm promise of more to come.

The question then naturally arises, is teacher negativity, of which there is ample evidence, also attributable to communication problems?

Without doubt there have been serious communication failures during the implementation of CfE. One of the definitive guidance documents clearly indicated that pupils in the fourth year of secondary school (S4) should study only five subjects. This is the logical consequence of a broad, general curriculum continuing until the end of S3, leaving only one year for specialisation and preparation for examinations.

Such was the outcry at this sharp narrowing of the curriculum in S4, allowing for no further selection in S5, that the management board was obliged repeatedly to claim that this was a misinterpretation of the document. Sadly, this early mistake has had a lingering impact on the educational ether; reducing the number of subjects studied in S4 and S5 is now considered to be within the spirit of CfE.

Initially, classroom teachers laboured under a dearth of relevant information; aims and principles yes, necessary detail no. This situation was remedied with the distribution of the very large, very shiny green folders of YouTube fame, which deluged teachers with quantities of documentation from which they struggled to extract information relevant to their circumstances.

So, poor communication has indeed been an issue. But teachers are educational professionals; they are much more interested in the content of the message than the means of communication. It is the substance of CfE which has engendered widespread discontent and concern in Scottish schools, particularly in secondary schools, where the mutually contradictory principles of CfE are creating a curricular maelstrom.

CfE demands that the curriculum be broad and general until the end of S3, with pupils engaged in all modes of study. Simultaneously, there is to be increased personalisation and choice. Square that circle. In addressing this conundrum schools now variously offer subject choice at the end of S1, S2 or S3. Subjects considered difficult are squeezed out of the curriculum; this masquerades as personalisation.

Subjects which will more readily deliver points in the qualifications system, such as personal and social education, are substituted. Any and every permutation is capable of justification under a CfE principle. More PE, less PE. Compulsory foreign language, no foreign language. Six subjects in S4, seven, eight or more. Teachers do not see the smooth progression, or the emphasis on excellence rather than expediency, that they would support.

The curriculum is couched in terms of outcomes and experiences. Setting aside the issue of the educational value of an experience (for example, unless you take time to memorise a credit card number, you are extremely unlikely to learn it simply from the repeated experience of using it) the outcomes are wide open to interpretation, particularly in relation to the expected standard.

For instance, an outcome which includes the addition of fractions to solve problems does not specify if this requires the ability to add ½ + ¼ , or 6/11 + 8/9 say, two calculations requiring significantly different levels of numeric skill and understanding. This “freedom” for schools will inevitably result in widely different standards across the country.

CfE correctly identifies literacy and numeracy skills as fundamental to educational success, and to future life chances in general. Yet the emphasis on improving these skills is placed not, as one might expect, on primary schools, who are responsible for the first seven crucial years of education, but on secondary teachers, most of whom have absolutely no training in the teaching of literacy and numeracy. Thus physics teachers are expected to deliver literacy outcomes, History teachers numeracy. Not only does this approach come too late in the educational process to have much, if any, impact on literacy or numeracy, teachers now spend less time operating within their own areas of expertise.

There is less history on offer while the teacher invents some spurious numeric activity to appease the CfE gods. Meanwhile in primary schools, the emphasis on active learning is reducing the time spent using books and on written work, a sure way to diminish rather than enhance skills. Teachers remain unconvinced that this is an effective approach to improving standards.

And standards are the key to excellence. There is now no assessment regime whatsoever for primary pupils. There are no national tests of any description. In addition, Scotland has removed itself from two international comparative studies; a cynic might wonder if this is to ensure that there will be no future bad news in relation to standards in Scotland. There is therefore no way to establish standards in primary education, not in individual classrooms, not at whole school level, not at authority or national level. A complete absence of external accountability in primary education is a hugely dangerous policy. How can it be sensible to abandon all attempts to measure and ensure standards?

The introduction of interdisciplinary learning without either staff training or quality materials has led to half-baked, superficial approaches. Pasta across the curriculum, anyone? The promotion of confidence as an end in itself rather than the by-product of hard won achievement, has encouraged the recognition of any standard of performance as success, school reports which prohibit any negative comment and performance descriptors which give no clue as to the relative quality of performance. Teachers would rather fully inform parents and seek their support to achieve improvement.

Scottish education is in need of reform if it is ever to regain its status as a world class system. Excellence requires rigour, effort, perseverance, high standards and accountability. Search for those words in CfE.

• Carole Ford is the retired headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy and former president of School Leaders Scotland.