One of the conclusions I’ve gradually come to over the years is that in order to facilitate real change in any system it’s necessary to change the landscape. It’s come to me slowly and for all that I believe that focusing upon cultural change is still fundamentally the correct route to improvement – I’ve also come to recognise that we just tinker at the edges if we are asking teachers to change their practice within a system where the fundamental features remain static.
So when it comes to a Curriculum for Excellence I fear that little will change unless we shift some of the key building blocks upon which our practice is based, e.g. how we give credit for learning; how we organise learning, and how we deliver learning.
My thinking on this has been influenced by a recent trip to New Zealand where I encountered their qualifications system. Much like our Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) their system is based upon levels and associated credits for learning. However, there are two important features of their system, which appear to have an advantage of our Scottish version. Firstly, their levels and credits equate exactly with university entrance requirements, whereas SCQF has to be translated into UCAS points; and secondly, they differentiate outcome by a simple system of Pass, Merit and Excellence in any unit of study. A New Zealand student needs 80 credits to gain a National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) at any level. That certificate can be endorsed with “Merit” if 50 of these points are achieved with “Merit” and likewise for the student who gains 50 points or more with “Excellence”.
It was while this was fresh in my mind that I recently visited Jewel and Esk College of Further Education with a group of our secondary Headteachers and senior staff. In something of a damascene moment I began to see how we might begin to change the landscape for organising and delivering learning in our schools and the example has been under our nose for a number of years now – you don’t even have to go to the other side of the world!
One of the understandable strategic elements of the Curriculum for Excellence implementation process has been to try to keep the qualifications issue separate from the curriculum development – as it was feared that the focus of secondary teachers would always swing to what was going to be tested and ignore some of the more fundamental questions about the experiences and outcomes of the courses they taught. However, with hindsight this may have been a mistake as it denies the reality of secondary education and its links to access to employment and further and higher education.
The other lesson to be learned from our New Zealand cousins and, more pertinently, from our colleagues in further and higher education – is how to trust internal assessment. I’ve written before how colleges in Scotland can give credit for learning up to Higher National Diploma (which is a couple of notches beyond Advanced Higher level) without having to rely upon any form of external assessment) – while schools continue to have to rely heavily upon external assessment – at levels of learning significantly below HND.
So how might we use this knowledge to create a framework within which our schools can innovate, develop practice and improve the outcomes for learners? Perhaps we could create a common assessment and accreditation that could overlay the curricular model being developed in our schools?
Imagine a scenario where each relevant unit of work taught in S1 – S3 carried a credit for numeracy, literacy, health and well-being – and skills for work, i.e. all those experiences and outcomes that are the responsibility of all teachers. By creating a matrix of learning experiences learners could, through moderated internal assessment, which builds upon formative assessment strategies, be awarded credits at a range of levels of learning with outcome being recognised through Pass, Merit and Excellence. As these credits are accumulated the learner could achieve a local Certificate of Achievement that could be endorsed with Merit or Excellence. By the end of S3 a learner will have undertaken a broad education and will also have a record of their achievements in these crucial building blocks for learning.
Such a system would provide teachers with a clear framework; yet enable them to create innovative and challenging learning contexts where these outcomes can be achieved. Some schools may create units of study which fill identified gaps in provision, which may not sit clearly with a single subject domain.
Finally, such a system would enable students to become familiar with the likely curricular structure and national accreditation model, which they will encounter, in the senior phase of learning and beyond school in further and higher education.