Letter from Edinburgh

What should be taught in schools? Something called the Curriculum for Excellence is being introduced over the coming years.

It reforms secondary school teaching into two blocks. The first is the secondary 1-3 years and the second is the exam and vocational options through secondary 4-6. If your son or daughter is currently in primary seven then he or she will be part of the new system.

The principles behind the changes seem sensible – to give more flexibility to schools and teachers in designing patterns of learning and also to ensure higher standards of literacy and numeracy. This comes out of employer surveys across Scotland where the basic skills of writing and counting are not as good as they need to be.

I still think that getting these basics right in primary school must be the grounding that makes second­ary school work. So to accept that literacy and numeracy skills must be worked on in secondary is to say that something isn’t right earlier on. But secondary teachers are worried about the complete lack of substance on what the curriculum will now look like. The Scottish education system has for decades developed around the exam structure and you are assessed on what you get, whether these be Standard Grades or Highers. Now government is going to change that approach. Exam results will still of course matter, but not to the same extent.

I’m not sure what this means for young people seeking university entrance qualifications. If Aberdeen University has traditionally asked for four Bs at Higher to get onto a degree course are they to change their requirements as Curriculum for Excellence is introduced?

Will a local builder in Lerwick find acceptable a 16-year-old who might have no externally assessed exam results and simply some internally marked test results from Brae or the Anderson High School? At best that is going to take a lot of explaining to employers.

The new exams which will shape the new system should have been with schools months ago. But the government is now promising them in January.

I met a former AHS teacher, Jim Sutherland, who now heads up Loch­aber High School in Fort William this week. He told me he doubted that we would see these new exams before next summer.

This matters because a complete redesign of how schools teach and prepare young people for exams takes planning. I know some teachers who say that the complete lack of detail means this process is all but impossible at the moment.

So government’s got to get its act together. And before Shetland plunges into yet another enormous educational review, teachers and our education department deserve the clarity of knowing what exactly they are being asked to do. At the moment they don’t. And, writing as a parent of a primary school-aged son, I find that profoundly worrying.

Tavish Scott MSP


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