Learning to do better

The grandly-titled Curriculum for Excellence programme for Scottish education suggests a revolution is coming for our schools, though few of us are actually able to pinpoint what exactly that will mean. GEMMA FRASER examines the facts of this brave new world which signals changes in classrooms.

IT is designed to prepare children for adulthood, offer more choice and enjoyment of school subjects, and most importantly, revolutionise education in Scotland.

The title alone of the Curriculum for Excellence programme suggests grandiose improvements and world-class education for our children.

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And the main aims of the new curriculum – to enable all children to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society – appear nothing short of inspirational.

While all this sounds encouraging for the future of education in Scotland, there's one question on the lips of many parents and teachers: what exactly does Curriculum for Excellence mean?

Despite the fact it's set to arrive in classrooms across the country after the holidays, education professionals and parents alike still do not have a grasp of what changes it will bring to schools.

The reality is that most of the Curriculum for Excellence work will be done behind the scenes, with the emphasis being placed on reviewing teaching.

In fact parents will probably see little change in their children's schooling until 2012, where they will witness a major shake-up. Standard Grades are set to be scrapped after 24 years and replaced with a new qualification – called a "General" grade – which pupils will study in S4.

The change will allow pupils to carry on the broadest range of subjects for an extra year before having to choose, at the end of S3 rather than S2, where to specialise.

Most pupils in S4 would study for their General exams, while a relatively small number of the most gifted would be able to go directly on to Highers or take a mixture of both.

Fourth-year pupils would also have to take the compulsory Scottish Certificate of Literacy and Numeracy exams in December. New baccalaureates in science and languages, which will be made up of Highers, Advanced Highers plus a project, will run for S6 pupils. The reforms have just been put out to consultation, offering parents and teachers their chance to have their say. The aim of the shake-up is to take the best of both Standard Grades and Intermediates and give children a better chance of achieving qualifications and preparing for Highers.

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Pupils would be able to pick and mix topics through a new unit-based system, encouraging them to "engage" more in their learning.

Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, says the Scottish Government is just assuming the consultation on the exams reform – due to end in October – will be accepted. But she believes there are a number of sticking points

. She said: "The suggestion is that pupils will only be able to do five subjects and parents will have a lot to say about that because they like their children to keep their options open.

"And the idea that youngsters will be able to do Highers without doing any precursor exams is just pie in the sky."

Tina Woolnough, chairwoman of Parents In Partnership, fears the new system would lead to youngsters "wasting" their third year at school by continuing to take a number of general subjects that they have no interest in specialising in.

She said: "What would be more use is if children got more work to do in S1 and S2. This would prepare them better for Standard Grades and in turn Higher grades."

Plans to scrap Standard Grades are however backed by some educational professionals, such as Dr Terry Wrigley, a senior lecturer in educational development at Edinburgh University.

He believes delaying exam preparation for a year will be beneficial for all concerned, but does point out it will be a big challenge for secondary schools.

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Dr Wrigley also fears that education leaders are not going far enough when it comes to reforming Scotland's education.

He said: "The upper years of high school are dominated by tests (the NABs which lead up to Highers and Intermediates).

"This leads to habits of short-term preparation and is out of step with the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence.

"We need to follow the example of Queensland, Australia, which has introduced challenges called 'rich tasks'. These often require pupils to bring together their knowledge of a range of subjects."

For example, he says, you could get pupils to investigate health needs in their local neighbourhood and then do a presentation to a real audience on how to improve health care in that area.

He added: "It's much more challenging than short-term testing."

Despite the fact that 300 schools – including 13 in Edinburgh – have been piloting different aspects of Curriculum for Excellence for some time, most parents still do not understand what it means.

Despite the potential gains, the Scottish Government still appears to have some way to go if it is to win the support of parents for its reforms.