Professor Mark Priestly is an excellent academic and a very interesting and engaging presenter – well that’s my view following my participation in day one of a three day course on the Curriculum, part of the Excellence in Headship Programme run by the Scottish College of Educational Leadership, at Stirling University.
Many see the curriculum as being all about the traditional subjects we teach, however it is far more complex. It is about the breadth of subjects; the skills required; the wealth of wider opportunities; it is about the relationships between the academic subjects and vocational subjects; partnerships across education and across the community, local and national. Understanding the holistic nature of why, what, when and how we teach EVERYTHING and how it is all intertwined is crucial to understanding how we can improve the curriculum in its truest, widest sense.
There is a lot of contemporary criticism that the environment and the institutional and systematic way we teach in schools hasn’t changed since the Victorian era. Indeed, I’ve been to schools where they still use a brass hand bell to announce the start of the day, lunch and dismissal time just like they did in the factories during the 1800s. It is a system that ensures our pupils turn up to school, on time, with their equipment, in uniform and ready to engage with their peers in a productive a respectful way. This was a necessary pre-cursor to ensuring that there was order and productivity in schools and mirrored within society, especially in the workplace.
Little has changed in this respect. These are still the expectations in any 21st Century workplace and these are still the expectations in Oban High School. Similarly, both the Victorians and 21st Century education still places a high degree of importance on exams. Why? Society uses exams to measure the degree of ones intellect, abilities and talents based on examinations of knowledge and skills, themselves one and the same. We do exams in school to measure the acquisition of skills and the retention of knowledge; both of which are necessary skills in every job in life after school. Thereafter, employers continue to teach their staff knowledge and skills to ensure the employees remain trained to carry on their roles as the environment and needs of the employer change over time.
Some may argue that this is quite depressing. However, I would argue that whilst the key principle that we need to prepare youngsters for the world of work hasn’t changed, what has changed is the focus on ensuring that education is for everyone, not just the elite, the top 30% even. This acceptance of equity by most in the profession ensures that schools across Scotland have largely embraced the Curriculum for Excellence (much maligned unfairly in the press) to ensure that all our pupils needs and aspirations are at the forefront of our minds when writing and developing an individual school curriculum. The acceptance that all youngsters have different desires, different talents and different abilities means that teaching 14 core, traditional subjects up to Higher, occasionally beyond, is just not good enough and we need to offer more subjects relevant to 21st century employers demands and youngsters interests.
I am proud to note that Oban High School offered 44 subjects in the senior phase and 24 subjects in S4 last session. Choice of opportunity is one cornerstone of our curriculum. Choice of opportunity allows pupils to get experience in qualifications and experiences closer to those necessary and / or desirable for an employer in order that our youngsters can take their first steps into life after school. In running a traditional curriculum, pupils could pick up whatever number of Nationals or Highers they need to make the basic criteria but how much better is it that criteria also met through choices of subjects and exam success that reflects more accurately their knowledge and skills in a specific employer related area.
That is why, as well as English, Maths, History, Biology etc. we also offer qualifications like Sound Production; Childcare; Hairdressing; Engineering; Automotive Skills; Sports Coaching; Health and Social Care; Construction; Hospitality; Digital Media; Cosmetology; Design and Manufacture; Maritime Skills… the list goes on.
It is also why we place a huge importance on developing leadership skills across our pupils though the development of our pupil leadership teams and Sports Coaching classes, as well as encouraging leadership opportunities in every class. Similarly, we use drama classes and productions as well as the insistence for each My Time class to present at assemblies as a way of ensuring pupils are given presentation and confidence building opportunities. The three Rs are crucial but so too is the ability to get past an interview panel.
Ultimately we are trying to ensure our youngsters are ready for the jobs of the future, many of which we can only guess at. Will we need Urban Agriculturalists; drone pilots; Avatar Designers; Smart Dust Programmers; Personality Services personnel; Nano Medics; Octogenarian Service Providers; Extinction Revivalists; Robotic Earthworm Drivers… the list is endless and ultimately unknown. However what we do know for certain is that the current subject specialism needs to be evaluated and some of them redesigned to meet future employment needs.
It is for this reason that the international business community and organisations such as the British Council are championing six core skills to help prepare young people for life and work in a globalised economy. These core skills are: Digital Literacy; Critical Thinking and Problem Solving; Creativity and Imagination; Student Leadership; Collaboration and Communication and Citizenship. All of which we teach to some degree already in Oban High School because we share the desire to prepare our children for the future; indeed it was this vision and current provision that led to my participation in the Education-Employer conference at Buckingham Palace during the October holiday.
I should note that we are only able to offer this wealth of opportunity because of our partnerships with other educational establishments; for example, Argyll College; Open University; Ballet West; Glasgow University; Herriot Watt; the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – all of whom either run courses for us or provide valued support, encouragement and guidance to our young people.
Another cornerstone of the curriculum is the pastoral care we provide pupils; another the existing school staff and support; and the final corner the support we get from the Education Department, Education Scotland, the SQA etc. However, these reflections are for another day.
This wee piece is about reflecting on the curriculum today. As part our discussions at Stirling we were asked to contemplate alternative ways to look at the curriculum given the changing nature of the world and what we know from what works and does not work in today’s schools. Should we bounce pupils from one class to another every 50 minutes or not?; Should we not start at half seven and finish at half 5 (with no homework)?; Should we abolish all exams?; Should we get rid of composite skill subjects like Geography and merge with all the Sciences and just teach Science as single subject?; Should we not be getting employers into school and let them teach employer specific subjects directly?; Should we not have more schools that do not create an artificial barrier in education at age 11/12?
There were lots of questions and debates along these lines and debate is healthy because it leads to continual improvement… as long as the change and improvement is measured and achievable. We are in the process of consulting about changing our curriculum just now and I am sure my discussions and lessons learned will be added to that consultation. However, for now, I am pleased to note that the percentage of our pupils who go onto a positive destination (work, university, college) remains very high and I am confident that we are providing a breadth of opportunity that pupils are enjoying and seeing relevance in, far more than they did a decade ago.
Mind you, the idea of moving to a three day week is appealing….