I participated in an interesting event in Dingwall yesterday – a meeting of Highland secondary head teachers and other senior management. The focus was Curriculum for Excellence, with two presentations from Education Scotland in the morning, and my input (on our recent CfE research) after lunch. The event was well attended, with representation from the large majority of Highland’s 30 secondary schools. Diversity was evident – from large urban schools to small rural schools with fewer than 20 teachers.
Despite this diversity, some common themes emerged. Unsurprisingly, secondary schools are preoccupied at present with the arrangements for the new national qualifications. Some were concerned at the lack of innovation, and pointed to barriers including assessment issues. Assessment is a major theme that concerns all schools, including at the Broad General Education level (secondary years 1-3). Mary Hoey (Education Scotland) gave a cogent and clear presentation on this issue. She stressed the need for assessment to be both ‘ongoing and periodic’. By the former, she meant that assessment activities should permeate classroom learning, being both formal and informal. The latter refers to regularly utilising more formal methods to gather evidence of learning, including those based up classroom activities and tests. She stressed the need for assessment activities to be valid and reliable – both best achieved by teachers coming together to discuss and moderate. She also emphasised that assessment should be ‘proportionate’. She warned against the dangers of creating a ‘monster’ – an over-sized assessment tail that wags the educational dog.
This warning chimes with the concerns of many teachers and head teachers, who see the workload issues associated with assessing the Experiences and Outcomes of the new curriculum and a continued over-emphasis on attainment as being major barriers to innovation, and the successful development of the new curriculum. These are genuine concerns – and indeed are well-documented in the research literature (see for example https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/3669). A continued emphasis on attainment encourages a culture of performativity, where innovation is seen as risky, and where teachers play safe. In many cases, the worldwide research documents evidence of playing the game to raise attainment, and even cheating.
An over-emphasis on attainment is clearly damaging to the development of good education. Curriculum for Excellence runs the risk of heading down this well-trodden track, and we need to change direction before it is too late.