I have been struck by the extent to which the series of articles following Gert Biesta's thoughtful Agenda piece "What are schools for?" mirror much of the debate that gave rise to the new curriculum in Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence.
Mr Biesta calls for a broad and balanced curriculum and highlights the dangers of the needs of the economy becoming too dominant. He also points to the complexities of pursuing goals that are based on transmitting values or developing talents; goals that beg many questions as we move from aspiration to operation.
The responses, however, challenge us to address such complexities. Words like values, potential and achievement recur in these responses. It is clear the expectation is that schools should be much more than exam factories and that the purposes of education must include the development of well-rounded individuals who enjoy learning and are well equipped to thrive in the complexities of 21st-century life.
The good news is that the new Scottish curriculum is intended to provide just the kind of rich, relevant and rewarding experience each of the contributors wants to see. It grew out of a national debate about the purposes of education and its first statements were about the principles and values which stemmed from that debate and which should govern subsequent development. The reform covers the entirety of school education, promoting the consistent development of four capacities (successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens) in all young people. It has steadfastly pursued the need to raise standards, combat disadvantage, improve basic skills and, crucially, to provide all young people with a broad, general education that will establish a secure platform for subsequent learning.
This is a radical and comprehensive reform that departs from previous worthwhile but essentially piecemeal attempts to improve aspects of education. The innovative nature of the reform goes beyond the content of the curriculum to include an approach to educational change that learns the lessons of past experience both within Scotland and beyond.
Hitherto, educational reform has been based mainly on research and dissemination methods that position schools and teachers as implementers of changes developed centrally. However, research evidence suggests that successful reform is founded on approaches that engage teachers more directly in shaping practice in ways that meet local needs and circumstances. Curriculum for Excellence is based on that kind of more creative involvement.
High-quality learning by pupils requires high-quality teaching and another plank in the Scottish reform programme is support for the development of the teaching profession itself. A wide range of initiatives have been set in train under the umbrella of Teaching Scotland's Future. New degrees, revised teacher standards, more effective professional development and improved leadership are all part of this programme.
Gert Biesta wants Scotland to "set an example for a different, more humane and more democratic vision of the school". Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to do just that and there is considerable international interest in what we are attempting here in Scotland.
However, realising the full potential of the reform in ways that remain true to the original ideal will require sustained leadership and commitment over many years. The extent to which it has commanded continuing political and professional support for the last decade is encouraging. The next stage will require a recognition that the job has just begun.
Curriculum for Excellence is not a finite entity that can be implemented but a new way of thinking about educational change and about how education can best serve our young people.
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