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Stifling innovation

By 4 May 2012No Comments

For many years the Scottish secondary curriculum followed a neat, symmetrical pattern. 
Students in the first two years (S1-2) followed a broad traditional, compulsory curriculum, English, Maths, Science, a modern Language, at least two aesthetic and two social subjects, PE and some ‘technology’, usually Home Economics and Craft, Design and Technology.
It was broad based but fairly academic.  At the end of S2 students chose seven or eight subjects for S3-4, English, Maths, a language, a science and three or four others.  In S5-6 academic students studied five subjects to Higher and latterly some to Advanced Higher.  That tradition has come under increasing challenge in recent years and several schools experimented with radical changes.
At Keith Grammar in Moray, Wallacehall Academy in Dumfriesshire, Govan High in Glasgow, Leith Academy, Forrester High and my own school, Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, and in others, course choice has been moved to the end of S1; exam presentations are starting mainly at the end of S3; and S4 is in the senior school for course choice and timetabling purposes.
These change arose from concerns at the lack of pace, motivation and progress in the S2, the disengaged cohort in S4 who failed to attain much themselves and disrupted others, and the ‘two-term’ dash to Higher in S5.  They also pressure for a more vocationally oriented curriculum.
Vocational courses were introduced in S2-3 and widely introduced in S4-6.  For less academic learners, having completed a basic diet of qualifications in S3, a vocational S4 became a much more attractive proposition.  Demographic trends and falling rolls also played a part.
For smaller schools, timetabling S4 in the senior timetable made a significantly extended range of courses much more practical.  It also supported the one recent growth area in school populations, the S5 non-academic returners, seeking further more practical and vocational qualifications.
The recent buzz-words in Scottish education had been flexibility, personalisation and experiential learning.  Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that in these flexible, personalised models, motivation, attainment and behaviour have all improved.
It is also true however that many other Scottish schools have retained course choice at end of S2 but have radically over-hauled the traditional Scottish curriculum, especially by the introduction of a sustained and comprehensive programme of vocational courses in S3-4 and the abolition of the ‘compulsory’ aspect of many of the traditional academic subject areas.
All of this seems set to end.  Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, has announced a curricular reform package including the abolition of Standard Grades.  While many welcome that, her second proposal, that all young people would pursue a broad general curriculum to the end of S3, reflecting the traditional strengths of the Scottish education system, threatens the innovations of schools such as Leith Academy.
For Leith’s headteacher, Jack Simpson, the biggest concern is that, having been given leeway to devise flexible strategies at a local level, his school is now being faced by a monolithic national assessment structure which will stifle the positive developments Leith has pursued.
Derek Curran, Headteacher at Forrester High School, welcomes the prospect of no national qualifications until S4 but feels caught, a practical level, between a rock and a hard place.
While he welcomes the move away from an over-intensive focus on examinations, it seems to be working for Forrester at the moment with attainment at the end of S4 now surpassing those in many of Edinburgh’s more affluent schools – entirely the result of early certification and youngsters effectively getting two bites at the cherry, one in S3 and one in S4.
Govan High shifted to options at the end of S1 because the school perceived the S2 experience to be a waste of time.  Iain White, Govan’s headteacher is clear: “If the new system makes a return to a ‘compulsory’ S2 and adds on an S3 experience that is also a waste of time, then we would be horrified!”
The debate is increasingly focusing on the fear that the government position is a one-size-fits-all option.  Jim Cassidy, headteacher at Edinburgh’s Gracemount High summed up feelings.  “Like many others I thought that we had entered a brave new world based on the principles of flexibility, personalisation and designing a learning experience to meet the needs of the individual pupil. Instead ‘age and stage’ has been reinstated and a 3 year general education for all imposed.”
So far the new Holyrood government has won plaudits for careful listening.  Will it listen on the issue of course choice?
The above article was first published in SecEd on 15 May 2008.

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