Lesley Riddoch: The new Curriculum for Excellence can help reshape Scotland's education system

MICHELLE Obama's tribute to the transformational power of education has probably done more than any policy change to motivate the girls she met in London last week.

It wasn't just her message – that being smart was cool and the world needed capable girls to take the reins – it was her manner. Confident enough to ad lib; bold enough to defy convention and embrace members of the schoolgirl audience on her knees; smart – and attractive – enough to have a man like Barack Obama in tow.

It was a hard act to follow. The same day in Scotland, education secretary Fiona Hyslop unveiled details of the long-awaited initiative that should help Scotland create a small army of Michelle Obamas: the Curriculum for Excellence. But compared with the First Lady's no-nonsense advice, the changes sounded nebulous and vague and prompted a plethora of media explanations the next day.

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The idea is to make school education more relevant to young people and modern life, said The Scotsman. Radical changes will attempt to move teaching away from rote learning, said the Herald. The proposals will place greater emphasis on independent learning, said BBC online. Scottish pupils are to learn traditional subjects by applying them to the study of broad topics, such as flight, the oceans, or France, said the Times.

What's certain is that mistakes in reading, writing and spelling will henceforth be picked up in all lessons – not just English. Literacy work will study abbreviated forms of English such as text-speak and help children decide when they are acceptable. Maths will involve personal finance, and science will focus on the environment, to make subjects relevant. Above all, there will be crossover between discrete subject areas – either the slippery slope towards teaching generalised twaddle, or a long-overdue acknowledgement that teaching subjects in silos has nothing to do with reality. History classrooms, for example, have long been covered with maps. Without some knowledge of geography and economics, it's hard to understand why countries have clashed over borders, space and resources.

But are teachers currently the renaissance men and women needed to confidently cross subject boundaries? A truly broad education is an admirable aim, but it demands a lot more of teachers than sticking to what's always been and runs the risk of producing pupils who are jacks of all subjects but masters of none.

And there is another difficulty. Literacy and numeracy actually come bottom in the list of skills Scottish businesses find lacking in young people. The Future Skills Scotland Employer Survey 2004 shows the skills most commonly missing are planning and organising, customer handling and problem solving. And all the evidence shows these largely behavioural skills are acquired in the first three years of life when 50 per cent of our language skills are put in place. So, for many children, the Curriculum for Excellence will come too late.

Former Wise Group boss Alan Sinclair asks in his Work Foundation pamphlet How Small Children Make a Big Difference why so many children reach working age without acquiring the fundamental attributes needed to open an employer's door. "Where and at what age do you learn to speak and listen, get on with others and take some initiative? We form these critical attributes in the first years of our lives, in the womb, on our parents' knees and before we ever set a tiny foot in a primary school," he says.

He goes on: "We have a topsy-turvy investment strategy. We invest most of our resources where it will do least good – in the later years of education and in particular on graduates. By contrast, in years nought to five, where the best research indicates the return on investment is likely to be highest, we invest the least."

In this sense, Scotland is a remedial not a learning society – spending time and money with diminishing rates of success to retro-fit skills on to adults who should have acquired them as toddlers.

In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK is in the bottom quarter of member countries in getting young people into work, education or training.

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Perhaps, then, we should consider that councils such as Glasgow might have a point in their objection to the government's smaller class size policy. Instead of using the concordat education cash for cutting primary 1-3 classes to 18 as agreed, Glasgow has taken advantage of falling rolls to let teachers go and not replace them, and instead spend the cash on "nurture classes" for toddlers who need the most help. As a result, the teacher-pupil ratio has stayed broadly constant, and Glasgow has contributed a large part of the 1,000 "missing" Scottish teachers who left the profession last year and were not replaced.

Admittedly, it is not clear all of Glasgow's saved cash has actually been spent on early years – and without a massive transfer into nurseries and social work, much of the "nurture class" effort will still be remedial.

And the education convener's weekend statement describing SNP class size policy as "irresponsible" is not perhaps the best way to open dialogue.

But before Glasgow spends 47 million introducing class sizes of 18 – the equivalent of six new primary schools – the council is entitled to ask questions. Misgivings have already been voiced by commentators such as Scottish Parent Teacher Council veteran Judith Gillespie, who argues that children face social disruption when their smaller cohort has to mingle with new faces in primary 4.

Questions about education policy abound and Ms Hyslop has been under constant pressure to resign. But the Curriculum for Excellence is a bold step in the right direction, and the SNP must remain open to other radical policy proposals to attain the Obamas' educational dream for Scotland.