Who’s really Not Ready?

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 β€” 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 mΓͺme 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)

Cross posted at If You Don’t Like Change…

8 thoughts on “Who’s really Not Ready?

  1. Iain Carlton

    You make some very valid points about why we should not be worried about CfE, but I would like to take issue with a couple of things. My biggest worry as both a teacher and parent is that we don’t yet know the content of the National courses. Every piece of paper telling me what will be in them has the word “draft” over it, which translates as “could bear no relation to the final version”. In June I am going to start teaching a course which has to prepare pupils for Nationals which don’t exist yet. Next year I (along with everyone else) will have to put together new courses at the same time as trying to deliver the existing ones, with no extra time or resources. Assessments are the least of my worries just now. All around me I see colleages being pushed to the ends of their tether by the stresses of implementing this, and I am deeply concerned about the overall effect on the profession of this perssure which shows no sign of letting up. As you say, what follows could be better by a considerable margin. It could also be a complete train wreck if it continues to be done on the cheap.

  2. Alan Hamilton

    I wonder how widespread your concerns are? By which I suppose I mean are there divides across subject areas, or different parts of the curriculum.

    For my subject (Business Education) the N4 and N5 draft courses progress from the Technologies and Social Subject E’s and O’s, and the content of the courses are not too disimilar to the current Intermediate course outlines. Despite the ‘draft’ label, I am confident that we have enough existing resources that can be adapted to meet the new arrangements. I’m also optimistic that many of the suggested internal assessment examples in the new outlines will provide me with ideas to get my classes creating resources that can be used by others.

    I don’t share your concerns about not having the time to put together new courses. Again it may be my subject area, but I have re-done or updated my resources every session of my career so far. To me, this change is more about the how rather than the what. We are preparing pupils to have the experiences and outcomes outlined in the CfE documentation, not to pass exams in May 2014 which, as you point out, have yet to be written.

  3. Fearghal

    I have to agree with Alan. I am in the fortunate position of being on the QDT for my subject area, and I therefore know the extent to which the final version will differ from the draft version (not much). I’m also confident that the courses have been written in such a way as to articulate with the fourth level experiences and outcomes. We are developing our S3 course with the fourth level e&o’s and I have no doubt that they will provide good preparation for N4 or N5.

    The content of our N5 course is not radically new – everything in there is in our Int.2 or Credit course. Theoretically we should be able to transfer resources across, but the pressure we create for ourselves will mean we won’t do that. We want to improve the ‘how’ as Alan says, and so I’m sure we’ll take this opportunity to improve upon these resources – but it’s good to know they’re there should we need them.

  4. Martyn Call

    I can’t comment for all Maths depts across Scotland, but we are sure we will be able to successfully deliver a course that gives good breadth, depth, application and challenge, and also allows pupils the chance to succeed at assessments. The Maths itself isn’t changing, and whilst some topics seem to be moving about we are confident we have enough resources and creative thinking on how to use them to see us through while we develop (albeit slowly and over time) new resources.

    Over the last 3 years our dept have been developing resources but always mindful that CfE was just around the corner we sort of kept our feet in both camps. This really helped us all see where we were going and after the draft course outlines were sent out we felt even more sure what we had done was right for us. We accept that some things will need changed slightly, and we will stress over it as we want to do a good job.

    Our biggest worry at the moment is not can we get pupils to where they should be for N4/5/Higher/AH but how do we moderate what is happening with maths and numeracy across the school, and indeed, within our region? Especially for N4 as it is all internally moderated. As some other bloggers have been pointing out though Universities have been doing this for hundreds of years without much bother, so I’m sure we’ll make it too.

    It is a challenge though, but I keep telling my pupils “you’ll enjoy it more due to the challenge!” That applies to us too right?

  5. Neil Post author

    Hi Iain,
    Thanks for commenting. I understand where you are coming from… not least because I hear it with great regularity every day at school! πŸ˜‰ I think you raise genuinely reasonable questions, but…

    I stand by my basic premise, namely that the content we will be delivering has not fundamentally changed in any way. What the new Scottish Curriculum does offer us is the opportunity to deliver this content in new ways.

    I am as guilty as anyone of having some tried and tested lessons that I can pull out of my bag at the drop of a hat… and I am sure they will continue to make an appearance in my class in the future, but one thing I can honestly say is that the increased focus that introducing a better curriculum has made me do is think carefully about just about every lesson I deliver. I cannot claim to be a better teacher yet, but I am actively looking for opportunities to improve. That is a direct result of CfE.

    For what it’s worth (and I should disclose that I have had some small involvement with the writing team for the new English Higher), the point I make in my original post about the new assessment being remarkably similar to the existing one is well made. According to the latest guide to the new Higher, there is a slight shift in weighting of the folio from 20% of the overall mark to 30% , but otherwise, you’d be hard pushed to explain what is different to a parent β€” in which case, we are also going to find it difficult to justify another year’s delay to them.

    My real fear is that we have had the E&Os for some time now, and still feel unsure about delivering the courses because we don’t know what the assessments will be… To me, this smacks of the worst possible kind of education, teaching to the test. Doing this is to acknowledge that the short term gains of a school’s standings in a nominal league table is of more importance than the long term learning of a young person. We claim to have a child centred system, then try to make it suit the teacher first.

    There are no easy answers to this. Any curricular change is going to mean upheaval, but as a profession, we are immensely talented and capable… what might help is if more teachers and fewer managers were involved in the process. Who knows, more INSET time devoted to actually developing materials rather than being told what to develop may help reassure those like us who will be at the sharp end of deployment. πŸ™‚

  6. Barbara Gray

    At last – someone (Mr W) who is speaking my language! CfE is the BEST development we have ever seen in Scottish Education (certainly in my 30 years lifetime as a teacher) and we must embrace it wholeheartedly! We know it is right. Our children deserve it. We (the profession) have the skills and creativity to deliver it. Why are we scared?What’s scaring me is the alernative!

  7. Neil Post author

    Hi Barbara,
    I completely agree that the alternative β€” namely maintaining the status quo (and see Kenny Pieper’s brilliant post on that!) β€” is too depressing to contemplate. I do get frustrated when I am asked to find ways of fitting what we’ve been doing into the new curriculum. If we truly accept the need for change, then we need to be brave and actually make the changes. I was very taken with Don Ledingham’s post about overcoming curriculum inertia. I wish more decision makers would take the time to read and listen to Don’s blog… I can’t help but think we’d all be the better for combining his knowledge and experience with a bit of bravery.

  8. Paul Cochrane

    Chemistry is a problem as the draft outlines seem to indicate that N5 has about 30-40% of the current Higher and some new unseen material in it. Entry requirements are suggested as N4 but we are moving straight from S2 (Level 3) to N4/5 in S3/4. Therefore, no Level 4 work done at all and no robust info on what kids should be doing N4 or N5. Bit of a mess to be honest and we have been asking our leaders since November, ‘What are we teaching in August?’ with no definitive answer.

    Build in the real working context of wage freezes, pension payment increases and colleagues taking on second jobs to keep their homes and there is a real tension framing our working lives.

    In my opinion, an opportunity wasted as the principles of CfE are really engaging but the delivery at ground level has been very patchy and poor.

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