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Who’s Really Not Ready?

March 21, 2012

If I was cynical, I’d think that Mike Russell’s announcement that option of delaying the implementation of National 4 and 5 exams for a year was deliberately timed to coincide with the Budget. There can be no doubt that with regards Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), this is a bit of a climbdown no matter how it has been spun… but, I do think it is grossly unfair to point the finger at the Minister alone. After all, he will not be the one standing in a classroom delivering the new courses, that’ll be us, the teachers. Is it possible, that ultimately the fault lies with the schools themselves? Or, is this all just symptomatic of a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of assessment in learning?

I’m going to lay my cards on the table straight away — I like the Curriculum for Excellence. I do believe that it does offer the opportunity to more accurately and relevantly prepare our learners for the real world after school. This is the world I live in: where I work collaboratively with others, where I am encouraged to make connections that didn’t exist before, where I have ready access to the resources I need to make sense of problems that present themselves to me, and where every day, I try to be a confident individual, an effective contributor, a responsible citizen and a successful learner… now remind me, where have I heard those words before?

4179063482_2f07bdb00a_b-529x529.jpegSo with that out of the way, let’s consider the elephant in the room. Curriculum for Excellence is not new. Honest. In fact, it will celebrate its 10th birthday this year, as Fearghal points out in his great little potted history of CfE. So, forget that I am a teacher for a second, and let’s concentrate on my more important job: as the father of a son who will only ever know CfE. Here’s my first question to Scotland’s teachers (and obviously, to myself): what have you been doing for the last 10 years? Why is CfE a surprise? Why do we need more time to implement this?

BTW: This room is getting a bit crowded because there’s a second elephant in it. The optional delay is in the introduction of the National 4 and National 5 assessments… not the curriculum itself. I think this is important because it speaks volumes of the reasons why we as a profession find ourselves having to consider the role of assessment and its place in the curriculum. How many of these statements have you heard over the past 10 years?

  • What will the assessment be like?
  • How can we prepare the pupils if we don’t know what the exams are like?
  • How much will be the same, how much will be different?
  • Should we look at what we already do and see how that fits in with the new assessments?
  • Will I still be able to use the same units I’ve always used?
  • Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum…

I’m sorry, but this is the tail wagging the dog. We are on the verge of trying to make fundamental changes to our learning and teaching… changes that we have historically acknowledged need to be made as Fearghal noted:

The teaching profession had been growing increasingly restless with the pace of change in education in the late 1990s. Large numbers of teachers were increasingly engaging with educational literature and trying out new practices in their classrooms.

And yet, 10 years on, I would venture that the pace hasn’t changed, and that we are looking too closely at the wrong things… but as I shall say later, this is as a result of too much top down pressure from Management teams and parents who cannot see beyond the next set of results. [An aside: how do we measure the value that a school contributes to society? Is it the number of learners who go on to University, or the number of learners who are able to thrive in whatever walk of society they choose for themselves?]

untitled.jpegWe have allowed ourselves to become infatuated with results over learning. Consider this. Have the laws of physics changes as a result of the new curriculum? Does Death of a Salesman suddenly mean something new as a result of the new curriculum? Do the birds and the bees do it differently as a result of CfE? Of course not. And here’s the inevitable truth about CfE: the content has not changed one iota. It is the same as it always was. Unchanged. Nada. Niente. La même chose.

Let’s, for arguments sake, suggest something heretical. What if the exams weren’t going to change? What if, for example, Higher English was to go from being a folio and 2 written exams to a folio and two written exams? How foolish would teachers look if this need to postpone was to accommodate an exam that is, in every practical sense, exactly the same as the one it’s replacing? I think we’d have a pretty hard time persuading the parents that this delay was worthwhile if that was the case for Higher.

Of course, the real change in assessment comes with the ending of Standard Grade (SG) exams which will be replaced by National 4 and National 5 exams. Being honest, you’d think the Standard Grade was the best thing since sliced bread to hear some people talk, but that would be wrong. I have heard just as many, if not more, teachers bemoan the inadequacies of the ‘SG’ over the years. It is an exam that has long since past its sell-by-date, and yet many schools and teachers have suddenly decided to try and stave off the inevitable by clinging on to it for a little longer – either by ‘fast-tracking’ S3 pupils through it, or now, applying for a year’s postponement (I wonder how many have spotted that this won’t mean an extra year of Standard Grade presentations? It will however, mean presenting an extra year of Intermediate 1 and 2 exams).

Now, could you all move over a bit, because there’s another elephant coming through the door*: East Renfrewshire. As many are all too quick to point out, East Renfrew are deferring implementation en masse… but what everyone appears to conveniently forget is that East Ren got rid of Standard Grade years ago. 2005 I believe. There is a logic for them to defer for a year as there is a clearer articulation between Intermediate courses and the new National 4/5s than there is between Standard Grade and the new National 4/5s. Why is this important? Well, because the Standard Grade really does have to go. It is, in the words of a friend of mine who works for the SQA, “no longer fit for purpose”. The National 4/5s are needed, we’ve known about this for a while, and yet we still think we aren’t ready. Why? As I mentioned before, I think it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become too focussed on the test rather than the learning, and here’s why I think this is.

6a00d8341e992c53ef00e54f9c10638834-800wi.gifI doubt there is any teacher working in Scotland who doesn’t have regular meetings where their school’s performance is mentioned. Management and Local Authorities appear to measure this using only one metric: exam ‘success’. There is constant pressure on us to improve results, and this has lead to a culture where the end result has become more important than the process of getting there. What happened to ‘the thrill is in the chase’? Of course, when all you are doing is focussing on the end result, you can become too focussed on preparing for the exam. Lessons are devoted to exam technique. There are exemplars aplenty on the SQA Understanding Standards website. There are after-school study clubs looking to help learners get better at passing the exam… and there’s the rub. the focus is on passing the exam. Not on understanding Shakespeare better, not on finding the real maths in throwing a basketball through a hoop, not in building and marketing a brand, not in actually making something of value, not in forming a team of workers with different strengths that compliment each other, not in doing anything other than knowing how to recognise what a specific question requires you to do in order to pass. Exams have become a bit like the driving test. if you do x, y, and z correctly, you’ll pass… but just like the driving test, how much relationship is there between driving to pass the test and driving every day? (Yes, I know that this analogy probably says more about my driving, but bear with me!)

Preparing learners to be assessed is an essential part of being a teacher, is an essential part of any course, but it is not the only reason for studying the course. Let’s be honest here, the course content will stay the same, but what has changed is the pedagogy that underlies our teaching and learning approaches. That is the whole point behind the new Scottish Curriculum. We are trying to prepare our learners for an uncertain and unknowable future, and we cannot and absolutely should not be doing so by clinging so desperately to the past. It’s time to stop fixating about the the exams and assessments. The curriculum allows us to be creative, to look outwith the limited confines of our own subjects, to make connections, and to see the bigger picture. In short, it allows our learners to take a broader outlook on their own education and the very best will give them a range of experiences that are relevant, challenging and memorable. Three words that you wouldn’t really apply to the existing assessments.

So, who is responsible for the delays? Truthfully, who cares. The Scottish Curriculum is changing. Fact. What follows should be better by a considerable margin. Stop worrying about the ‘assessments’ and start working out how you are going to challenge and stretch my son because, when all is said and done, he is the one we are making the changes for. He is the future, not those who cling to the past.


*(Honestly, if there were any more elephants in here, I might have to change the name of the blog to Billy Smart’s Elephant Show)

PS: I should also point out that Fearghal’s original piece is satiric!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nikkii permalink
    March 22, 2012 7:31 am

    Kathryn is in very real danger of failing higher maths – not because she can’t DO maths, she’s actually very good at it, she “gets it”, she actually LIKES trig for crying out loud – but she can’t prove it in 1 hour and 15 minutes so she’s a failure. School’s not about learning it’s about performing – fit through the very inflexible hoops and you’re a winner – it sux monkey butts 😦 I suspect the new curriculum won’t change that outcome much – so exactly why teachers aren’t ready to carry on teaching and innovating beats me.

  2. March 22, 2012 8:20 am

    Great piece Neil
    No one even the national awarding body wants the system and individuals to obsess on results .
    Schools and their managers should be looking across range of outcomes.

  3. Sarah Halliwell permalink
    March 26, 2012 7:56 am

    I totally agree. As a lecturer in FE and a mother with three daughters I have watched nurseries and primary education embrace CfE and yet the stumbling block has always appeared to be High Schools and the pressure of exams. Learning has to mean more than targeting time limits and memory exercises……………

  4. March 26, 2012 6:20 pm

    Thanks for the comments. 🙂 There has certainly been plenty of positive feedback here and on Twitter. I wonder if there are actually more people in favour of the new curriculum than the press would have us believe?

    It’d be interesting to carry out a poll with a question about the pedagogical changes only. Leave the questions about the assessment for another poll?

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