CfE Fearghal Kelly's thoughts. Reflections of a biology teacher

The business end of CfE

For Scotland’s Secondary Schools, buy we’re now reaching the business end of the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. By this I mean that we’re about to begin the process of implementing the new National Qualifications – I don’t for one second think we’ve yet got anywhere close to actually implementing the curriculum as a whole, sales that will take some time yet. However, as we reach this difficult moment of significant change there is a natural apprehension which seems to be leading to ever increasing confusion.

Given the current level of coverage of CfE in the press, any Scottish teacher is likely to be asked their thoughts on all of this, and I am no different in this regard. Where I do feel particularly fortunate, is the opportunity I had on an 18 months secondment to have the reasons for this change clearly and repeatedly explained to me through challenging and engaging discussions – if only this opportunity could have been made available to more. As such, I am very much in favour of the changes and more than comfortable with the direction of travel. If you watch the news or read the papers, you would think that I must be completely unique in this regard, I know for a fact I am not, however I would accept that we seem currently to be in the minority. So then, I thought I should try to outline some of my own thoughts on all of this on here…

Why do we need Curriculum for Excellence at all? Why do we need to change?

There’s a strange contradiction around CfE. On the one hand it is often described as “transformational change”, and yet on the other you’ll often hear teachers state “it’s what we do already”. So if it’s not a change, why all the fuss? As far as I’m concerned, little of CfE is new. Everything in the documents was already happening either in pockets of the country, or in pockets of time throughout the country. Or, as in the case of formative assessment, occurring throughout the country most of the time, but superficially.

CfE is about refocusing the entirety of the school curriculum onto a common purpose and striving to take these pockets of good practice and make them universal. It raises the bar and says that the quality of learning and teaching must be improved across the country, at all stages, and at all times. It takes widely accepted pedagogies such as formative assessment and active learning and builds them into Government policy. Sure, there have been flaws in the implementation of this change, but that doesn’t for one second diminish the need for, or the nature of, the change in the first place.

Why do we need to change the National Qualifications?

The Scottish Qualifications had got themselves into a bit of a guddle. We still have the now dated looking Standard Grades sitting alongside a suite of National Qualifications which don’t quite articulate. On top of that, if we’re changing/improving our view of learning, teaching and assessment surely it makes sense to update the Qualifications also? Otherwise, if we were ultimately leading to the same destination as before, the chances of us being able to make the desired changes would be reduced. Again, as always with these things, this could probably have been done better – but I think that the SQA have done a pretty stirling job under the circumstances.

Why should National 4 have no national exam?

This one’s an obvious one to me. One of our current equivalent courses to National 4, Intermediate 1, is very much a skills based course. The unit content is very applied and the whole course could be approached from a “skills for work” type perspective. However, 100% of the grade for the course is determined by a traditional examination paper in a hall, in silence. Whilst this approach to assessment might be appealing to many teachers (who all successfully navigated the academic world and therefore view it favourably), the media (likewise) and many parents (either likewise, or if not, we spend so much time telling them that exams are all that matter that they believe us) but it’s simply not a valid form of assessment for this course.

Now, obviously, any variation from this form of assessment is going to bring issues of reliability – but these need to be dealt with in their own right. We can’t set about solving issues of reliability by making assessments invalid for the forms of learning we’re hoping to achieve. That’s not to say that tests can’t form part of the course assessment, but they do not need to form it all and they do not need to be set nationally. This more local approach to assessment frees up learners and teachers to take a more flexible approach to the learning.

I will finish this one by pointing out that I am (hopefully) about to receive an MEd (SCQF level 11) and I haven’t sat one exam, and all of the assessment has been internal. Even worse, there isn’t even an SQA equivalent to tell the University what they should be assessing! I simply do not understand why we cant take a more valid approach to assessment at SCQF level 4 if we can achieve it at level 11!

Why should schools be changing from 2+2+2 to 3+3?

This one’s particularly contentious just now. The reason 3+3 appeals to me is that it has the potential to allow us to treat our learners as people rather than cohorts. We currently have a situation whereby everyone churns through the two-year middle school in all subjects, which is a legacy of Standard Grade, whether its appropriate for them or not. I would like to reach a point where students are choosing courses at appropriate levels and for appropriate time-periods based on their own needs. I believe that the 3+3 model has a better chance of allowing for this. I’m also in favour of reducing the time we spend jumping through SQA hoops from four years to three in the Secondary school. Whilst the new National Qualifications should be more in line with CfE than the current qualifications, they’re still going to be national examinations for the large part. The more time we’re free to focus on and develop learning for its own sake the better I say. Let’s spend as little time capturing and certifying this learning as possible.

Why has all this proved to be so difficult?

Change is difficult. We’re creatures of habit. Things haven’t been helped by some of the approaches to implementation – but it was always going to be an uphill battle. Everyone was on board when it was just the four capacities, but as soon as it came to having to make real changes to the day-to-day, it became a lot tougher. What’s difficult just now is trying to work out who has the genuinely thought through grievances and who is just shouting no because they don’t like change. I think we should be very careful not to lump these groups together as both are in many ways understandable and predictable.

For many, the problem with the National Qualifications lies with the speed of their implementation. But this only applies if you’re sticking with 2+2+2. For these schools, which have chosen to ignore the national guidance, they are finding themselves in the awkward position of starting these qualifications before they have finished being developed in August of this year. But they knew this when they made their decision regarding the curricular model. For schools moving towards a 3+3 model, they will not begin teaching these qualifications until August 2013 – which is inline with the implementation timeline.

In my own opinion (for what it’s worth), there should be no more delays. I don’t believe the last one achieved anything…we’re creating a curriculum, which while still obviously flawed (they always will be), is an improvement on what has come before. Let’s get on with it for the benefit of our learners