What’s so good about Curriculum for Excellence?

Curriculum for Excellence is much, much more than a new set of guidelines for what is taught in Scottish schools. It is a fundamental re-think of what schools are all about. Though the headline innovations are due to be complete around 2016, the underlying changes should continue to be introduced in schools at least for the rest of the decade. Richard Coton, formerly Head Teacher of Monifieth High School, sees it as the greatest opportunity in 30 years to develop a system of education in harmony with Christianity.

The story behind the Values of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is interesting – and significant. Whereas every other part of the architecture of this vast scheme has been endlessly drafted and redrafted, the Values arose out of a single conversation among the original core planning team. They’d been hard at work for many days and weeks when someone pointed out that CfE had not yet been based on a coherent set of values. More or less immediately, someone else in the group suggested the four Values on the Mace of the Scottish Parliament: Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Integrity. The idea commanded immediate support. There was no further debate.

A Christian world-view?

An unambiguous statement of moral absolutes, at the core of Scotland’s radical new approach to education. In a relativistic culture, how remarkable is that? And such superb values too – recognisably Biblical. You have to ask Whose hand is behind that remarkable turn of events.

And make no mistake about it, the moral lead within the new Curriculum is a central factor. Do you remember the ‘Lifeskills’ approach to Social Education in the 1980s? ‘Education must be morally neutral. We’ll help you develop tools for life, but how you use these skills is entirely up to you.‘ Young Adolf could easily have got top grades: after all, he was extremely skilful! OK, I’m pushing it, and I’m certainly not saying that the average conscientious teacher took things so far along the relavistic road. But the new world of CfE is refreshingly different. In line with an increasingly common international trend, the new Scottish curriculum is defined in terms of outcomes, not inputs. This offers greater flexibility and a more professional role for teachers, and at the same time provides clearer focus. And that focus has led teachers to ask a fundamental question: What is education for?

The answer in Scotland is given firstly in high-level terms. We should be helping young people to develop in 4 areas or “Capacities”: Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Effective Contributors and Responsible Citizens. Note the holistic view of education and the clear moral lead: you cannot be a successful individual unless you also learn how to serve others and play a responsible role in the world around you. Sitting beneath the 4 Capacities are very precise “Experiences and Outcomes”, arranged in four levels (for ages 3-15), with a Senior Phase beyond, defined significantly by external examinations. Curriculum for Excellence is designed to put Scotland at the forefront of educational development world-wide, and is certainly attracting a great deal of attention internationally. We need to celebrate the remarkable fact that so much of it is in complete harmony with Christianity.

Experiencing tomorrow – today

What are some of the key points? Well, firstly, the bedrock of CfE is not the “Experiences and Outcomes”. It’s actually much wider, spreading out to a radical view of what twenty-first century schools should be like. You could say that CfE is about two things: Doing School Together and Making Sense of Learning…which pretty much embraces everything that a modern school is about. Even in the same town or city, each school is quite individual. Some have been pursuing these ideas for a decade; others have still to begin. One thing that nearly everyone is agreed about: the title Curriculum for Excellence is deeply misleading. What we’re involved with is really Learning and Community; it embraces everything from management structures and governance to purposes and pedagogy.

In practical terms, Doing School Together (Community) means giving pupils loads of responsibility, both in the classroom and in helping run the school. That, by the way, can be a great opportunity for Christian pupils to have an influence. It also means working in partnership with the wider community – which gives superb opportunities for local churches and Christian organisations to work in partnership with the school and serve it.

Making Sense of Learning should include making much closer links between subject (especially in secondary schools, where all too often learning has been compartmentalised). Real-life contexts have always been pursued by teachers, but the new Experiences and Outcomes really point you in this direction. Have a look at Case Studies (both in this website and at http://www.syls.org.uk/) - for a whole range of practical ideas.

As I mentioned at the start, however, the biggest shift brought about by Curriculum for Excellence is a broadening of our view of what education is all about. The emphasis on Health and Wellbeing, the Four Capacities, the underlying messages about how pupils, staff, parents and the wider community relate to each other – all these lead to a holistic view of education which is much closer to the Bible than Scotland’s (and Britain’s) traditional tendency to over-emphasise the mind. It’s no co-incidence that one of the key hothouses of the Enlightenment was in Scotland. We may feel comfortable in the familiar cultural legacy that it has given us, but like all heresies the Enlightenment was always a subtly dangerous distortion and over-emphasis of just a part of God’s truth.

Get praying!

So are schools now fully implementing CfE? Not at all – and like painting the Forth Bridge, the work should never actually finish. The world of children and young people is changing all the time: schools need to keep pace. And Government guidelines are very clear that they can best do this if they work in partnership with the local community – which is the perfect opportunity for parents and volunteers, churches, chaplains and schools workers to offer support that is practical and relevant to young people’s needs.

You may not be able to control the national picture, but you certainly can be salt and light in your local school. Change is always stressful, and most countries’ schools are facing major changes to respond to what is happening in our societies. So…

  • If there’s more than one Christian staff member in the school and you don’t have a regular prayer meeting, get going right away!
  • If you already meet and pray, be encouraged: it’s the most important single thing you can do to support all your colleagues and your pupils.
  • If you know there’s only one Christian teacher in the school and they’re in your church, get your House Group/Bible Study Group praying for the school. It really is the most important thing you can do.
  • If you’re in a church with a school nearby, if you’re a chaplain or youth worker, pray about offering support – and use this website to develop your ideas.

And don’t forget to pray for your Head Teacher too. Why not ask him or her if he/she would like you to pray for particular aspects of your school’s development. Who knows, your Head Teacher might be grateful for all the help he/she can get!

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