The Secondary School Curriculum – “we can know more than we can tell”

Why are Scottish schools finding it so difficult to break free from the dominant (and simplistic) 2+2+2 secondary school curriculum design model?

There’s a lot of chaff flying about at the moment that doesn’t help the debate but I wonder if the answer lies in what Michael Polanyi (1967) termed as “tacit knowledge”, i.e. knowledge where “we can know more than we can tell”. For I would suggest that there exist deeply embedded unspoken and implicit assumptions – which if not exposed to rigorous analysis – will continue to reinforce the current curricular inertia.

From a personal perspective the 2+2+2 model shaped my own curriculum options back in 1970, 1972 and 1974, mmm, that’s 42, 40, and 38 years respectively – not exactly cutting edge design!

So what are the undeclared forces acting upon the secondary school curriculum that have made it so difficult for schools to change?

We should perhaps begin by exploring the possibility that the 2+2+2 model just happens to be the best, or, as it has been described by some, “the most sensible” for young people and that it has led to effective and successful teaching and learning, which has resulted in Scotland being one of the highest performing school systems in the world – unfortunately that’s just not the case.

So if it’s not a system which is delivering then what forces could be in action?

Recurring national curricular guidance has complied with the dominant model, e.g. 5 -14 (first 2 years of secondary), Munn and Dunning (years 3 and 4); Higher Still (years 5 and 6), and to these could be added a number of other curricular guidance papers and reports which following the 2+2+2 scaffolding.

I’d actually argue that the 2+2+2 model has evolved without any rationale other than it gives every subject a “fair chance” to have access to students – their lifeblood in maintaining their place in the curriculum. For without students taking your subject, your subject is history (and, history teachers, I don’t mean this literally!).

I write this from two perspectives – firstly as a former principal teacher of a subject – who saw my subject’s place on the curriculum (measured purely by student choice) improve dramatically over a ten-year period. The outcome of this increase was clear to see – it led to an increase in the number of teachers, increased per capita allocation, and an increase in capital spend to develop new facilities to meet the increasing demand. Now imagine what might have happened if we had not seen an increase in students choosing our subject i.e., an exact reverse. Who in their right mind wouldn’t take action to seek to avoid students not taking their subject? (Apologies for the double negative here)

Of course, there is a higher and more altruistic reason for ensuring your subject’s place on the curriculum and that is that you believe that a young person’s education and life experience are dramatically compromised by not having sufficient access to and knowledge of your subject.

My second perspective is that of having been a headteacher and school timetabler. For it was as a headteacher that I saw the same pressures being played out on all Principal Teachers.

It was from this toxic mix that the market place economy model of the curriculum became embedded. By market place economy I mean a model that enables each subject an equal chance to display their wares and have access to the consumer (the student). I’d argue that this was the key driver for the first two years where subject teachers go to great extremes to ensure and demand equivalent time allocation. But it also explains why there is such resistance to any change to the middle years through a narrowing of certificated choice – see the reaction to any shift from choosing 8 subjects at the end of S2 to fewer certificated subjects at the end of S4.

The unfortunate reality has been that many subjects have seen their curriculum only really taking off in S3 once young people have “selected their subject” – the fact that time has been so evenly spread and hence limited for each subject means that the students’ experience is often compromised to meet the needs of the market. The fear for many subject teachers is that the broad curriculum unnecessarily extends the thinly spread model for three years – as opposed to the current two, before students’ get down to the real job of “studying” their subject.

Imagine the consequences then for any subject which previously had it’s guaranteed place on the curriculum in S1 and 2 – regardless of how useful that time was; guaranteed time in S3 and S4 – even if pupil numbers were low; and at least a good chance that some of the students who had studied the subject in S3 and 4 would take the subject in S5 and 6. Anyone can see why this is attractive for teachers of a subject about which they are passionate and have studied themselves in great depth. The opportunity to teach interested, motivated and able students a more complex and demanding level of content is appealing and understandable – as so is any objection to any change to the system which preserves this “entitlement”.

The pressure on any headteacher to change a curriculum model which challenges these “entitlements” to students is extreme and cannot be underestimated, so it’s perhaps no surprise when the TESS reports that 50% of schools are sticking with the traditional model in the meantime. However, curricular inertia is a powerful force and it will take continued commitment and courageous leadership from leaders at all levels in Scottish education if we are to see a curricular model that doesn’t reflect what I experienced 40 years ago!