As schools across Scotland re-opened, teachers in the secondary sector face the prospect of a challenging year ahead, particularly with the arrival of a completely new set of qualifications.
While the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has been a gradual process, it is difficult to implement such a major programme of curricular change at a time of financial restraint across the education sector. Many schools have seen their staffing levels reduced, and resource budgets have suffered significant cuts, placing a great deal of additional strain on teachers.
While the vast majority of teachers support CfE and believe in its aims, many have major concerns about the support that has been provided to allow schools to deliver. The increasing workload is one of the most frequent issues being raised by teachers. In many parts of the country, a mini-industry has arisen around the administration, recording and measuring of CfE progress.
Much of this is unnecessary and inconsistent with the ethos of CfE, yet many local authorities are clinging to practice which requires teachers to record and report on all aspects of implementation. This is counter-productive, extremely frustrating for teachers and takes up a significant amount of valuable time.
It is these concerns over growing workload that prompted the EIS to launch its new workload campaign, with a key focus on cutting the unnecessary paperwork that has grown around CfE.
Already, we have heard some encouraging words from the cabinet secretary who, in his recent speech to the EIS, committed the Scottish government to addressing the workload burden of CfE. A new working group will soon be convened.
The advent of new National qualifications this year adds another dimension to the workload issue. We argued, strongly, that the timetable for the implementation of the new qualifications was overly-ambitious and should be delayed for at least a year. The Scottish government’s decision to ignore this plea and to press ahead with a single year, big-bang, approach to the introduction of the Nationals has created additional pressure.
Support materials for the new courses, long requested by teachers, finally became available shortly before the summer break. However, the timing of the release of materials, coupled in some subject areas with perceived inconsistent quality assurance, has led to questions over the resources.
Across the sector, this year’s implementation is largely an understandably pragmatic approach, on the part of schools, to ensuring that pupils in S4 are not disadvantaged by virtue of being the first CfE cohort.
The vast majority of schools are presenting whole cohorts for either N4 or N5 in S4 and then moving on to N5 and Higher in S5 rather than by passing exams in S4 and running two-year courses across S4/S5.
Hopefully as schools become familiar with the new qualifications this latter approach will become more widespread as it is the key way in which more time can be found for teaching and learning, the overall exam burden can be reduced, and genuine breadth in the curriculum can be fostered.
If we end up with a situation where all we have done is swap Standard Grade/Intermediates for Nationals, I fear we will have missed an opportunity to achieve the greater ambition of CfE in the senior phase. The lack of an appropriate fall-back between Higher and National 5 is one of the barriers to bypassing lower level qualifications and this is something that Education Scotland and SQA, in particular, need to address.
The other key area of the senior phase which should demand more attention is the notion of alternative routes for students who intend to leave school at 16. Such pupils have an entitlement to a “15 to 18 pathway” but the over-focus on university entrance requirements and the prospects for five-Higher pupils, coupled with cuts to school-college liaison budgets, has left this as a largely unrealised ambition of CfE. This needs to change. All in all – a busy year ahead!
Larry Flanagan is general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. Visit www.eis.org.uk