Curriculum Review

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:56 pm on 30 March 2006.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 2:56, 30 March 2006

The next item of business is a debate on the curriculum review.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 3:31, 30 March 2006

I am delighted to open this brief debate on curriculum reform, which follows the publication earlier this week of a progress report by the programme board for the curriculum review. The report is another important milestone on the road to the radical reform of our curriculum, which is, by any standards, a very major undertaking.

We need to remind ourselves why curriculum reform is so important. As the national debate on education in 2002 and the recent Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education report indicated, the people of Scotland feel that there is much to commend in our education system. Indeed, the HMIE report confirmed that they are right to think so.

That said, I have consistently made it clear that it would be a major mistake to allow that strength to become complacency. Although the system is strong, it faces challenges from without and from within. For example, because of the demands of modern-day work, our young people must be more creative and enterprising; must be able to work and plan flexibly, solve problems and work collaboratively; and must have competence in core skills. Global competition means that our young people will have to compete for jobs as never before.

However, as we know, too many pupils, particularly boys in early secondary school, are disengaging from learning either because the pace of learning is not fast, exciting or engaging enough for them or because they feel that the learning is not relevant to their needs and aspirations. Too many children are leaving school to join what is called the not in employment, education or training—NEET—group. Moreover, we know that the vocational options in our system have not been available or respected enough in the past.

It was for those reasons that the curriculum review group was established in 2003. In November 2004, I welcomed its report "A Curriculum for Excellence", which sets out the values, purposes and principles on which our future education system should be based.

"A Curriculum for Excellence" has caught the imagination of everyone who has engaged with its vision and central purpose. Succinctly and clearly, it articulates the four capacities that we are trying to create in young people—to be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Those represent the most powerful ideas that we have engaged with for a very long time at the centre of education.

The curriculum review is central to taking forward the wider reform agenda set out in our document "Ambitious, Excellent Schools". The reforms will be a major liberator of the system and the teaching profession by opening the way to more personalisation and significantly more choice for pupils in what they learn and teachers in what they teach. Although I will continue to set clear national expectations about the framework and standards that Scotland needs, that framework will open up far more choice, flexibility and space for teachers, schools and pupils to operate within.

Thousands of teachers have engaged in dialogue and discussion about reform and I want that work to continue. Their efforts have already significantly influenced events and have helped to shape the findings of the curriculum review programme board's report. I am encouraged by the progress report, which is an important document that sets out real possibilities for change.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

The minister said that he set up the curriculum review in 2003. However, we received the latest progress report only this week and the indications are that we will not get detailed guidance until 2007. Is the minister concerned that it will take four years for the review to bear fruit?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am not concerned about that, because we are talking about a radical and fundamental change to the heart of our education system, which is a colossal system that involves many thousands of people with ownership of different ideas and approaches. We need to take people with us and build consensus about the direction of travel, which is exactly what we seek to do.

The programme board's report continues to signal our approach, which is based on change that is owned and implemented by the profession, not instructed from the centre by Government. The report confirms that the whole school community has responsibility for developing the four capacities and that "A Curriculum for Excellence" offers a way of unifying the curriculum by embedding citizenship, sustainability, health and well-being, enterprise and creativity—which are often seen as add-ons—into the curriculum framework. The notion that everything that is done in school is part of the curriculum can help to provide more legitimate choices for pupils and proper recognition of wider achievement, not just attainment, in our schools.

I am pleased that the report suggests a way to simplify and prioritise learning. The report concludes that, by removing duplication within and throughout curriculum areas and by getting smarter at defining outcomes, more time and space can be found in the curriculum, which will enable greater depth and enjoyment and better—not just more—learning for children and young people. The board proposes that we should build an expectation that learning will be organised through subjects, interdisciplinary projects and studies and opportunities for personal achievement. However, subjects will inevitably always be part of how we structure learning—history teachers please note. I fully expect that, in future, we will have the current range of subjects in schools, although the contribution that subjects make to schools' purposes needs to adapt with the changing times and challenges.

Schools and teachers' jobs are, at root, about helping to create the responsible citizens, effective contributors, successful learners and confident individuals that we seek. In that context, subjects are about not only the subject but developing those capacities through the medium of the subject, a message that is of particular importance for secondary schools. Of course, that must be done in a way that does not restrict society's ability to develop young people who will become experts in all the fields of endeavour in which our society needs high-level expertise. Achieving that will continue to depend on high-quality subject teaching in schools.

I am pleased that the programme board report has a strong theme of progression from age three through to 18. I placed emphasis on secondary 1 to S3 in my response to the original curriculum review group's work. The focus on S1 to S3 as a stage that requires attention was deliberate. If we get that part of the three-to-18 continuum right, we will have made a major contribution to addressing some of the most significant challenges that we face. However, if the emphasis on S1 to S3 made us consider that stage in isolation, we would have fallen into a trap. The challenge is to maintain smooth and continuous progression from early secondary into the senior stages by building on a strong foundation of skills and knowledge. I will ask the programme board to pay particular attention to that as dialogue and planning progress.

Another programme board proposal that I find extremely interesting is the idea of defining progression based on experiences and outcomes. The idea is to use "I have" statements for experiences and "I can" statements for outcomes. The programme board also proposes the introduction of a new achievement framework to support teachers in planning progression in early learning that is broad, enriching and challenging.

The board proposes fewer but more widely spaced levels than we have in the present five-to-14 curriculum. The current levels have been criticised for having perverse effects on learning and teaching and for adding to teacher and pupil workload without adding value.

I agree that the framework for progression needs to be simplified. I will consider carefully the proposals on levels, although my initial view is that a system of three levels in primary has much to commend it. The levels that the programme board propose are intended to support teachers' professional judgments in planning and structuring learning and progression. They will also help with reporting progress to parents. However, I share the view that the levels do not exist to provide a basis for testing at specific stages, such as at the end of primary 1.

The programme board also proposes a new approach to how the curriculum is organised. I have made no secret of my desire for greater choice and opportunity for pupils. Therefore, I am pleased that the programme board proposes a move away from the current modal structure to a new approach that better addresses young people's needs and interests. I am attracted to the board's direction of travel on that. However, some may feel that the board has not gone far enough in describing how subjects could be grouped in the new structure. I am sure that the board will want to hear more views on that as work progresses.

Overall, the board's approach could help to deliver changes to the existing structures to allow a broader basis of learning with more scope for flexibility and choice. Those changes will result in a curriculum that: provides greater motivation, challenge and opportunity for learners; is more unified and provides smoother pathways for progression; and is more flexible, with more freedom for teachers and lecturers to exercise their professional skills. I welcome the board's work and ideas and I will respond fully once I have had an opportunity to digest the full implications.

I have always been conscious that the process of curriculum reform would raise fundamental and challenging questions about assessment and qualifications. I am also acutely conscious of just how influential—many would say far too influential—our qualifications system has been in determining what is taught in our schools. Therefore, I intend to consider what the implications are for our qualifications system and I hope to outline the direction of travel on that before the summer.

I look forward to the contributions from Parliament today, which in due course will help us to make decisions on these important matters.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 3:40, 30 March 2006

The Scottish National Party is pleased to have the opportunity to debate progress on the curriculum review. We called for such a review and are supportive of its aim of trying to return the capacity of teachers to use their professionalism to drive forward learning and teaching. Our job today is to assess progress and we will do so in a constructive way that will raise criticism and concern where necessary but which will provide support, encouragement and ideas for progress in equal measure.

There is much that is good in Scottish education, but it is essential that we drive forward continuous improvement, to challenge a system in which some pupils perform well but the performance of a significant minority is flat-lining. The bulk of children are doing fine, in a world in which, increasingly, fine or okay will not be enough. Talents, skill, ingenuity, creativity and ability to learn will be the test of a nation in which productivity of labour may have been the test in the past.

The curriculum review could be a real catalyst for continuous change and improvement in Scottish education. It could help to liberate teachers truly to use their professionalism to engage and stimulate children in learning. It could help to lay the foundations for a serious lifelong learning agenda, which, in a fast-moving world, will shift the emphasis from what is learned to how it is learned. But will it? I am concerned that the date for implementation has slipped by a year, but I am more concerned that Scotland should get the curriculum right. It may have taken almost 10 years for Labour in power to get to this stage, but the direction is right. Educationists have known that this is the right course of action for some time and the concern is whether there is enough energy and drive from the minister to propel it forward.

The Government must ensure that the net effect is change for pupils, not just for policy or that stimulates the Executive policy makers and generates deep and meaningful debate in the numerous workshops and presentations but does not touch those who matter: the children of Scotland. My biggest worry is how the review will be implemented, embraced, resourced and supported and what the Executive, in its leadership role, is doing to remove the barriers to progress. Too few teachers have seen, heard or read about the review to give me much confidence that it is being delivered properly.

The American educator Larry Cuban talks of educational change as a "hurricane at sea"—huge waves on the surface and unruffled calm on the sea bed. An intrusive, quick-fix implementation of curriculum reform would be just that: lots of surface activity, but little change where it matters, which is in the classroom. There are huge waves of thinking in the curriculum review, but they may not reach the sea bed. I fear genuinely, from feedback I have had, that the curriculum review is operating like a closed, exclusive, secret club. That feedback is from people who are involved in the curriculum review—particularly from the science section—who were not quite sure what it was about. That might be part of the evolutionary approach, but we should read the signals and take action. I have been pleased to see reference to developing informed attitudes to science, as science is not just for scientists; it is essential for modern citizens, with ethical challenges ahead for people and government.

There are concerns that the Executive may not be brave enough to ride the waves and to push for a curriculum for a modern Scotland that embraces, for example, the perspective of Professor Tom Devine on how Scotland could develop a positive internationalist sense of self by having its history as a spine through the curriculum. The science perspective is challenging and interesting, and begs the question of what is taught and when. Languages should be taught sooner and longer, but not necessarily at the same intensity at each stage. We must excite and stimulate interest in science early but specialise later.

If the minister is seeking political direction from the Parliament, the SNP will step up to the plate and offer some direction, critically but constructively. The curriculum review is right to encourage a cultural change in education, empowering teachers to grab the initiative, be creative and be trusted for their professionalism. The review addresses the key areas of reducing content; making connections through interdisciplinary teaching; and lowering summative assessment and engagement through innovative pedagogy—all good things. It is right to be evolutionary, but revolutionary thinking and drive are needed to deliver properly. The cultural shift has both professional and political buy-in, but a systemic problem needs to be addressed that I am pleased the minister mentioned in the latter part of his speech.

The push of the curriculum review is in danger of being held back by the pull of a strong alliance of forces in the shape of quality assurance and assessment. HMIE and the Scottish Qualifications Authority may be pulling in a different direction, in a tug-of-war with Scottish education and the curriculum review, as the minister acknowledges. The job is to harness those forces and to get them to work in the same direction. We have a systemic problem in that we send our children to school for longer than societies in most other European countries, yet we trail on the time that is used to teach languages, physical education and Scottish history. What are children doing in all the extra time? They sit tests, tests and more tests. The bureaucracy is distorting the system and is starting to become the driver in education, rather than the responder.

This week, the chief executive of the English Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that he wants to reduce exams by a third and admitted to assessment overload. We have long argued that we must take the bureaucracy out of education. We have had promises, but little has been delivered, and that is the real challenge. The exam-only system was replaced with a system that introduced continuous assessment for a good reason. However, all that has happened is that we have got an overloaded exam system plus continuous assessment, which is punishing innovation and creativity. That is what we must relieve. Exams must serve the curriculum; the curriculum must not serve the exams. We need teaching for lifelong learning, not teaching for a short-term test. Education in Scotland is still a world of constant assessment, and we need to address that.

A certain eight-year-old who is working towards his level C asked me if the levels went up to level Z. A child of eight thinks that the world of school will, one day, be gone for eternity, but the idea that there is an alphabet of levels to go through brings a different perspective. I applaud the move to have fewer levels, but I think that only one is being removed. As the minister will know, in Finland the inputs of the system rather than the outcomes from the children are tested. The Finns looked askance at us when we asked what they did on testing in primary schools. However, with so many pupils staying on, having one system for S4 and S6 makes sense.

So, where do we go and what are the final messages for the minister? Let us address the issue of assessment and quality assurance. We must not let HMIE become an inhibitor of progress—I do not think that it wants to be, but there is a perception that it will be. The Conservatives may want head teachers to be leaders in budgets; we want them to be teachers in learning. The minister has powers over funding that he must use wisely to harness all the forces of education in one direction and to remove the barriers to progress as well as the inherent contradictions.

I ask the minister to remember the words of "Scots, wha hae", which he and I sang, sadly, recently. They are words of bravery and it is time for bravery and leadership in education.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 3:43, 30 March 2006

I congratulate Fiona Hyslop on her constructive speech, which contained many valuable points. I also welcome "A Curriculum for Excellence" and the Executive's open engagement with Parliament in seeking the views of members while the consultation on the review is on-going and before the Executive's response. The curriculum is of fundamental importance to Scotland's education, so cross-party co-operation is highly appropriate and desirable. A review of the curriculum is essential and the efforts of the curriculum review group are to be highly commended.

Many teachers say that they are unable to tailor their lessons to pupils' needs and interests to the extent that they wish because the frequency and nature of assessments cause them to focus on the next assessment or exam. Concerns have been expressed that the curriculum is too cluttered and that there is too much duplication between years and subjects. The establishment of a cohesive structure that will address the progression of children's learning from three to 18 is an extremely valuable—indeed, invaluable—exercise.

Much in the curriculum review offers new and refreshing perspectives on teaching and learning methodology and on the nature and progression of school subjects. Of significant interest is the review's focus on encouraging teachers to engage with four areas that will expand the capacities of children—so that they can be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society. Teachers are encouraged to develop their own ways of relating those four areas to their own subjects.

Other interesting ideas, which are still out for consultation, are the introduction of fewer and broader levels in the five-to-14 curriculum—which Fiona Hyslop mentioned; alternative ways of assessing and recording achievement; and greater flexibility to tailor lessons to the needs and interests of pupils.

However, some of the proposals in the curriculum review are more concerning. First, the review says:

"curriculum areas and subjects will be refreshed and re-focused".

That could have implications for the teaching of subjects such as history and the sciences, whose status as standalone subjects could be threatened. We must ensure that there are enough teachers to meet the demand for such subjects and for foreign languages. I mention the latter because the demand for qualified young people with foreign language skills is likely to increase in the years to come.

We have a duty to parents to find a balance between flexibility and accountability. Most parents will seek assurances that their children have access to the knowledge and skills that will stand them in good stead for later life. Many parents will hope that refocusing curriculum areas will not blur the lines between subjects and bring about a diminution of rigour and standards.

Secondly, the curriculum review proposes that

"Expectations will be described in terms of experiences as well as broad, significant outcomes."

Although we would welcome any move to give teachers greater autonomy to get on with the job in hand and to allow them to plan for greater depth, enrichment and consolidation of learning, it is also important that parents have meaningful reports on their children's academic progress—just as it is important that children have experience of formal assessment before they sit external exams. We urge the review group to ensure an appropriate balance in the curriculum between testing and space for other learning.

Finally, we have long argued that head teachers and teachers should have more autonomy over school budgets and the school ethos. If teachers and schools are more able to respond to local need, that will be a significant factor in addressing problems of disengagement. At the Education Committee, a witness from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education commented:

"in the past three years, about one in 12 of the secondary schools that we have inspected has had wide-ranging issues of ethos, discipline and behaviour that involved more than just one or two departments."

He continued:

"It is clear that a small minority of primary schools have serious problems of disaffection and demotivation."—[Official Report, Education Committee, 8 June 2005; c 2495-96.]

Consideration of the curriculum is an extremely valuable exercise and I expect that many fruitful ideas will arise from it. However, we must guard against imposing too much paperwork on teachers. Intolerable pressure should not be inflicted on teachers as a result of too much paperwork and every effort should be made to ensure that they are not put under severe stress.

I look forward to hearing the Executive's response to the review. I urge the minister and his deputy to take into account the concerns that will be raised in the debate. The review cannot by itself cure all the ills of the education system, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. We warmly welcome it.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 3:54, 30 March 2006

I welcome this afternoon's debate on the curriculum review, and I welcome the document published this week by the review group.

The biggest advantage in our curriculum review is that we have put teachers at the heart of it. Although the overall direction has been given by the Scottish Executive, it is the teaching profession that is taking forward "A Curriculum for Excellence". It is important that we do not have a situation in which the minister determines what kind of teaching of reading every pupil should get in every primary school throughout the nation, as happens in some other parts of the United Kingdom.

"A Curriculum for Excellence: Progress and Proposals" is an excellent progress report that sets ambitious timetables. If we can achieve all that the report intends to achieve and have it implemented by August 2008, we will be doing extremely well and future generations will benefit.

I welcome the opportunity to speak because our party has been calling for the implementation of a number of the measures that the report contains for some considerable time. At the most recent election, our five headline proposals on education were to recruit 3,000 extra teachers to reduce class sizes; to abolish the current system of national tests for five to 14-year-olds to give teachers more time to teach and children more time to learn; to smooth the move from nursery to primary school by providing a full-time transition year for children aged five; to build and renovate hundreds of schools; and to give pupils the chance to develop vocational skills. Those key ambitions for education are all being delivered by the Executive.

The curriculum review programme board's proposals can create genuine opportunities for improved relevant and enjoyable learning that will motivate young people in their education and better prepare them for life after school. The results of the Education Committee's inquiry into pupil motivation, which we hope to publish shortly, show that it is important that pupils feel that their education is relevant. In the past, that has often not been the case. It is important that we make the subjects in the curriculum seem important to young people's lives if we want them to remember the lessons of how to learn throughout their lives, rather than just until they pass their next exam.

At school, I enjoyed doing hard sums and things such as quadratic equations and calculus, but by the time I had sat the exam and come back for the next school year seven weeks later, I had to start learning how to do them all over again because I had forgotten what I had learned. That was because the subject was abstract and was not relevant to anything in particular. We must ensure that when we teach pupils how to learn, the subjects of their studies are relevant to their lives. That is why I welcome the overall approach to progression through learning, which the progress report refers to as

"the child's journey through the curriculum", and the changes that have been suggested.

The inquiries that the Education Committee has done into pupil motivation and early years education have revealed the importance of the transition stages in education, such as the transition between early years education and primary school. The transition between primary and secondary school is even more important because that is when so many of our children seem to go backwards in their educational achievements.

The progress report addresses that issue by considering the whole curriculum as a continuum that covers children from the age of three to the age of 18 rather than splitting it up into a pre-school curriculum, a primary curriculum and a secondary curriculum. Its aim is to build on the best practices of one stage before the next stage is moved into. Achieving that goal is vital if we are to make significant progress in our education system.

I would go further than the report in proposing that primary 1 should start at the age of six rather than the age of five. The next stage of the curriculum review should consider when formal primary 1 education should start. At the moment, I think that it starts too early and that the education system should incorporate another year in which the nursery education approach is maintained. However, that is an issue for consideration in future manifestos.

In politics, one should never use one's best lines when committees are meeting in private session. Fiona Hyslop nicked one of my better lines about qualifications. I said that the purpose of the exam system should be to reflect the curriculum and that the purpose of the curriculum should not be to reflect the exam system. That is important. We must ensure that we use the exam system to asses properly what pupils have achieved through their learning in the curriculum. If the curriculum is designed correctly, assessment will provide proper guidance to future employers on pupils' achievements in the education system.

The approach that the progress report suggests is the right way forward. It examines how assessment can reflect what children achieve through the education that they receive. More specifically, it considers the education needs of the S4 to S6 group of pupils and what they require from the more formal examination system.

All in all, this is an excellent progress report, although a lot more needs to be done. A lot of drive is needed. I am sure that the ministers will continue to deliver and that Scotland's education system will benefit from the delivery of the measures in this document over the next two years.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 4:00, 30 March 2006

First, I declare an interest as a former teacher and teacher trainer and as a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

It is important to remember that the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000 established that education should be

"directed to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential".

We should never lose sight of that.

The five national priorities are also important: achievement and attainment; a framework for learning; inclusion and equality; values and citizenship; and learning for life. As we know, in 2002, the Scottish Executive held a national debate on education. The minister opened his speech by saying that many in the national debate had said that they wanted to keep a substantial amount of what was in the curriculum. No one in the debate argued for a more prescriptive national system. People said that they wanted the system to retain its flexibility; its breadth and depth; the quality of the support materials that help teachers to deliver; and the comprehensive principle.

However, some compelling arguments were also made for change, one of which related to the issue of boys failing, which members have mentioned. Other issues included the need to reduce overcrowding in the curriculum and the need to make learning more enjoyable, as too many pupils are switching off. People also mentioned the need for better connections between the various stages of the three-to-18 curriculum—Iain Smith spoke a bit about that—and the need for a better balance between academic and vocational subjects. That last point has been made in many debates and all of us are aware of the need for more vocational education. People also spoke about the need to ensure that assessment and certification support learning—Fiona Hyslop raised a number of points in that regard—and that more choice should be made available so that the needs of individual young people can be met.

It was against that backdrop that ministers established the curriculum review group in November 2003, the result of whose work was "A Curriculum for Excellence". That document is important because it examines the values, purpose and principles of schools that are key to the process of national reform. Discussion on those issues led to a general agreement that we need to do something about the curriculum. It was agreed that reform was needed to make learning more active, challenging and enjoyable. There are good reasons to embark on change and the progress report is a welcome start in that regard.

The curriculum review programme board's report on the three-to-18 curriculum is a key element in taking forward the agenda for change. Among other things, the report confirms that the whole school has a responsibility for the development of the capabilities that we look for in our young people. The report also confirmed the importance of strong leadership and ambition. A lot of early work was done by Dr Pamela Munn on school ethos.

"A Curriculum for Excellence" offers a way to unify the curriculum by embedding such activities as citizenship, health and well-being, enterprise and creativity into the framework. Iain Smith spoke about the importance of relevance in the curriculum. He may have seen the recent television programme in which, against a background of rising debt, it was suggested that more financial management should be included in the curriculum. Frank McAveety will speak on sport and the important work that is going on in some schools in that regard, including in schools in my constituency. "A Curriculum for Excellence" is the vehicle for increasing coherence both in and across the curriculum.

I will turn to issues of concern to the EIS. Obviously, the issue of support for teachers is at the forefront of the EIS agenda. Things are moving forward at the moment in that regard as a result of discussions between the Scottish Executive, local authorities and the EIS. The EIS welcomes most of the Executive's proposals. In particular, it welcomes the Executive's clear statement of the values that are fundamental to education. The EIS welcomes the Executive's commitment to comprehensive education and its recognition of the strengths of Scottish education and of the role that teachers play in taking decisions on the curriculum at all levels. The EIS also welcomes the Executive's acknowledgement that achievement is more than about attainment and its recognition of the importance of assessment.

There is also a clear timetable for development and implementation. At the heart of the document, however, is the agreement that was established in "A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century" about the reprofessionalisation of teachers and teaching. The minister reconfirmed that that is what he is trying to do, in order to take teachers with us as we go through the process.

The EIS has long argued for the ending of the gathering of five-to-14 results in formats that can readily be turned into league tables, and the clear commitment by ministers to doing that is particularly welcome. I welcome the challenge of those changes in the context of on-going negotiation with the EIS, local authorities and others.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

As I regularly switch off Sylvia Jackson's microphone, I have let her finish her speech this time, but I remind other members that we are on four-minute speeches this afternoon, not six-minute speeches. However, I think that I have time to give everyone speaking in the open debate five minutes.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 4:06, 30 March 2006

Like Sylvia Jackson, I should start with a declaration of interest, not as a former teacher but as an ex-pupil and, perhaps more relevantly, as the father of an eight-year-old who is currently going through the system. Although I take great pleasure in the successes that my daughter enjoys, I am also concerned about some of the pressures that our children are under in the current structure.

Like all the members who have spoken so far, I welcomed the review. It is incredibly important that we never let the system lapse or leave it to be ignored. The system must move on and evolve at all stages and must be kept relevant and up to date. That is particularly important, because children have to be taught how to learn. They should not be made simply to remember dates and a series of pieces of information; they must have skills for the future, particularly in the world that we face today and in the knowledge economy that children now grow up in. The world of work that they will enter is much more dependent on their ability to learn, to change, to evolve and to develop, and they must have the skills to do that.

I am generally pleased with the thrust of the review so far, which has much to commend it, but there are some concerns. The minister touched on a couple of those in his opening speech. There are some phrases that I furrowed my brow about. For example, there are references to "curriculum areas" rather than to subjects; "curriculum areas" sounds fine and there must be a cross-cutting approach in many areas, but some teachers and parents are worried about the loss or possible downgrading of certain subjects. I was also struck by the phrase

"Substantial simplification and prioritisation of the curriculum".

If that means what I think it means, that is good, but I hope that it does not mean lesson downgrading. I am sure that it does not and that the minister will ensure that that is not the case.

As I said, there is a great deal of concern about what is happening in certain areas. The fear is that that will result in certain subjects being lost. I know that other members will mention their own favourite subjects—I heard Sylvia Jackson say that Frank McAveety will talk about physical education. I certainly want to put in a plea for the social sciences, because it is extremely important that the social sciences—geography, economics, modern studies and particularly history—are kept in the curriculum. I have an honours degree in social sciences and have no doubt that those subjects provide a broad grounding in a range of areas to do with society and the approach that we take in our modern, western society.

I make a general plea for social sciences, but I want to talk about history in particular. There has been a great deal of concern and worry, as the minister said in his opening remarks, that history might be removed and spread among other subjects and not be taught as a separate core subject. If we do not know what our history is, we are lost, as individuals and as a country. We have to know where we came from in order to understand our place in the world and where we are going in the future. I see Peter Peacock nodding at that; I am sure that he understands the importance of that subject.

Teaching history, particularly Scottish history, is vital if we are to understand our place in the world. It allows us to put Scotland in its context, in the past, present and future. It would be better if we taught more social science and more history rather than less. When I was at school the amount of history—in particular Scottish history—that I was taught was almost zero, if it was not zero. I was not taught about the Celts, Wallace, Bruce or the wars of independence. I was not even taught about the declaration of Arbroath. There was nothing in the curriculum about Scotland's ancient trading and economic links with other parts of Europe or its cultural links. There was nothing about the Darien experiment or even the Act of Union. That was a failing in the history that I was taught. I had to learn about those subjects as an adult. I think that the teaching of Scottish history has improved over the years and I hope that that improvement continues. I do not want there to be a step back.

An agreement seems to be emerging—I hope that it is—that there is too much testing in our schools. My daughter has just gone through testing as a seven-year-old. It was a frightening experience for her and her classmates. I watched as they worked themselves up to high doh about what was about to happen. They were told that the tests were important and that it was essential that they did well. Weeks were spent in the classroom preparing them for the tests and they were given what I can only call past papers to do at home. Those seven-year-olds were extremely worried about the test. It seemed to me that the worry factor was what they got from the experience—they gained nothing of relevance to their education. Teachers in our schools should be given the freedom to teach, to use their judgment and to alert parents when there is a problem. We should deal with the matter in that way rather than through fixed testing.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour 4:11, 30 March 2006

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate on the curriculum review, which was set in train by the Executive in November 2003. As members know, the result of all the endeavour was "A Curriculum for Excellence", which identified the values on which we believe the curriculum should be based, the purpose of the three-to-18 school curriculum and the results that we wish young people to achieve, and the principles that educators will use to carry forward the curriculum.

I believe that the continuing discussion based on "A Curriculum for Excellence" will engender the debate that is necessary for the development of learning and teaching in this century. We must acknowledge that, although the present curriculum has strengths, too many young people in Scotland still do not achieve all that they are capable of.

The Government's document "Ambitious, Excellent Schools—Our Agenda for Action", which was published in October 2004, acknowledges that

"the performance of the lowest attaining 20% of pupils in S4 has remained flat in recent years".

Fiona Hyslop referred to that point. The document continues:

"and around 15% of 16-19 year olds are not in education, employment or training."

That is unacceptable. We also know that many—but not all—boys are underperforming. That deficiency must be remedied. Major challenges remain with regard to weaknesses in leadership in a small percentage of schools. That cannot be allowed to continue. The completion of all that we can do to refashion the curriculum to enable all our young people to compete and reach the highest possible level of attainment in an increasingly complex world must be treated as a matter of some urgency.

In the short time that is available to me, I do not want to concentrate on the purely academic or cognitive domain, important though that is—although I agree that we should not be obsessed with testing. I will focus on another aspect of the curriculum rather than on specific subject areas. I will home in on the totality of experiences that are planned for young people throughout their education. At all stages from three to 18 the curriculum will include learning though the ethos and life of a school as a community, and through interdisciplinary projects and opportunities for personal achievement, for example in debating.

As a former teacher of some experience, I know that the school as a community and the particular ethos that is fostered are essential prerequisites for successful learning. As Lord James Douglas-Hamilton said, the wider life of the school and such things as community events and school projects help to make pupils successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. The affective domain is just as important in turning out the successful, rounded individuals that we wish all our young people to become.

I will mention two examples of that vital aspect of the curriculum from my own constituency. Just over a year ago, I had the pleasure of welcoming Jordanhill primary school pupil council to the Parliament. The pupils engaged me in a question-and-answer session, which was direct, businesslike and very much to the point. They took part in a natural, professional fashion, which many adults—including many members—would do well to emulate. I believe that that is the result of a curriculum that is based on a flexible learning environment that focuses on the individual development of confidence and various high-level skills and on the inculcation of the need to work together as a team to achieve certain objectives. I believe that the approach that is exemplified by that pupil council is being copied throughout Scotland—I hope that it is.

At the other end of my constituency is Drumchapel high school. Members might be aware of the work that the staff there have undertaken to develop an atmosphere that positively encourages the development of responsible citizens and effective contributors among indigenous students, students who are refugees and students seeking refugee status. However, that has not been the work of only the past 18 months.

I first visited Drumchapel high school soon after my election in 2000 and I have been back to the school on a number of occasions. What struck me on that first encounter—it has been reinforced ever since—was the way in which, through various interdisciplinary projects and opportunities for personal achievement, indigenous Scots and our new Scots worked together, each group influencing the other in positive ways. It was so apparent that it was almost tangible. That type of result, as well as academic success, which is necessary, is what I want a modernised curriculum to deliver. It should be a curriculum that helps to develop our young people and enable them to stay the course.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 4:16, 30 March 2006

I, too, welcome the opportunity to contribute to this open debate on the curriculum review. The ethos behind "A Curriculum for Excellence" reflects much of my and my party's educational thinking and it is a welcome development. I have greatly enjoyed watching its progress. However, we are still a long way from where we would like to be in the development of the curriculum. I think that the minister would agree with me on that.

Robert Brown was present with me at an excellent debate last night on the contribution of the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme. In that context, I want to return to the issue of outdoor education because I have something new to say on it. The curriculum for excellence review talks about

"confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors".

The Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme is licensed to operate in half of Scotland's schools—perhaps one day it will be licensed to operate in all schools—and the work that it does with 20,000 young people in the country contributes towards creating successful learners. In a sense, outdoor education's contribution covers all four of the main thrusts of "A Curriculum for Excellence", which is about what we want to enable our young people to become.

However, there is concern about what can happen to outdoor education in schools and the situation needs to be addressed urgently. In Scotland's schools, there are only two or three full-time outdoor education teachers—in fact, there may be only one left because I know that one has been reallocated from a school in West Lothian. The outdoor education teachers whom we used to have are steadily growing old and leaving the profession. When it comes to discussing outdoor education in the groups that the minister is setting up, there will be few people who can add anything to the discussion because the expertise is gradually disappearing.

However, there is residual and growing expertise in voluntary organisations, which the Executive has supported. I am concerned, though, because if we really wanted to begin to develop outdoor education, the Executive would need a 10 or 20-year plan to train teachers in order to restore outdoor education in schools to its original pre-eminence. There are courses on the shelf at Moray House school of education—and perhaps elsewhere in Scotland—waiting to be delivered, but there is no money to support the students who would dearly love to take such courses.

The Duke of Edinburgh's Award has informed me that the training grant for voluntary organisations has just been withdrawn, which will make it difficult for the scheme to train its own volunteers.

What will happen? Outdoor education can make a huge contribution to helping the 20 per cent of young people who, often for reasons of low self-esteem, do not perform well in our education system—Bill Butler mentioned such young people. Outdoor education can help at-risk children and children who are at risk of exclusion, as well as young people who truant or offend. We heard plenty of evidence of that in last night's members' business debate, which was attended by some members who are here.

I was glad to see that the place of art, music and technical studies is well recognised in the curriculum review programme board's paper. However, the document makes no mention of outdoor education or sustainable development, including international sustainable development. I would have liked such matters to be included, because much thinking is going on in the Executive about them. Indeed, the Executive supports a sustainable development group. I did not track down mention of sustainable development—

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I will be delighted if the minister can tell me that it is mentioned.

Outdoor education can play an important part in the development of our children. In Norway, all primary schools have a duty to give every child one day a week out of school. We are nowhere near having such an approach; let us look forward to introducing it in future.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 4:21, 30 March 2006

I would like people in Scotland, especially young people, to regard scientists as heroes and not villains.


Special pleading, again.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Absolutely. There is an awful lot of cynicism about science. Hardly a few weeks go by without our being told that a wonder drug has been discovered that will not be available for five years or that scientists have cooked up something in their laboratories that is disastrous and will kill us all. That is not the reality of science.

In appendix 2 of the curriculum review programme board's paper, under the heading, "Science Rationale", it says:

"Science is part of our heritage and part of our everyday lives at work, at leisure or in the home."

We need to convey that in an enthusiastic way, to encourage youngsters to engage in science, engineering and a variety of technological opportunities that will help them to have fulfilling lives and will help us, too, by helping to grow our economy. We have a proud science heritage: we have a disproportionate number of Nobel laureates and we have had and still have wonderful scientists. However, I am not sure that our scientists are regarded as heroes. We must hold up scientists as positive, not negative, role models.

Appendix 2 continues:

"Everyone needs to have the capacity to engage as confident individuals and effective communicators in informed debate".

We do not always have that capacity in relation to science. Many controversies have arisen recently. For example, we heard about the risks associated with BSE and we were told that variant CJD could be a rampant problem, but the reality has been different. There might eventually be a problem, but it is interesting that recent figures show that as the BSE problem has decreased, so has the vCJD problem. I do not in any way minimise the problem that has hit individuals and families. However, the science around the issue was poorly explained, dramatised and blown up out of all proportion. We need to educate ourselves and particularly young people to understand risk and statistics, so that we can make a genuine assessment of the risks.

The risks that are associated with eating beef on the bone were very small, yet we ended up with an inappropriate policy based on what was, to my mind, misplaced science. We ended up having a big debate, which did not help. The same sort of thing could well be said about the risks that are associated with avian flu. Perhaps some of us who have argued against genetically modified crops should consider how we have dealt with the GMO debate. The same could apply to nuclear power.

Science is not always absolute, but we can give people a measurement of the risk or probability of something happening and allow them to make the judgment themselves.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

If we can educate our children to understand that better than some of the present adult generation, we will do society as a whole a big favour.

The review document contains a reference to unhelpful repetition across the curriculum, and I am sure that, in itself, that is true. However, one of the most successful educational techniques that I have come across involves people being told something three times. I do not accept that that is unhelpful repetition. First, we tell people what we are going to tell them; secondly, we tell them; thirdly, we tell them what we have told them. The repetition means that the lesson sticks. If we can do that in a dramatic way, so that people can engage, we are much more likely to be successful. The word "repetition" might itself be unhelpful in the document, although I am sure that it was not meant in that way.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

The reinforcement of ideas is actually good.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

You really need to close, Mr Adam.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party


Some of those people who are regarded, and need to be regarded—

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Mr Adam, your time has expired. I must ask you to close.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 4:27, 30 March 2006

Your face was like thunder just then, Presiding Officer. I hope that I can make a positive contribution over the next few minutes to cheer you up, at least a little bit—although perhaps my time will go down now.

I do not believe that there was ever a golden age, when teachers were happy—and I speak as a former teacher. There is a range of teachers in my immediately family and I have never had a conversation with them in my life, either when I was young or since becoming an adult, that did not end in the conclusion that those who make the decisions do not really understand teachers and the wish that, if only those people would get out of the teachers' road, teaching would be a wonderful thing. It was even said that schools would be great places if there were no pupils in them, although that was among the more extreme contributions.

There has been a pretty consistent view in the debate that we are moving in the right direction as far as curriculum design is concerned. In a sense, we will probably never arrive at a final destination because the goalposts are constantly moving. However, we should try to develop a curriculum that reflects where people are today, while being influenced by their past—for those who care about the development of history in schools. As a former teacher of history, I recognise the concerns about the subject losing emphasis in the curriculum.

By their nature, teachers are fairly sceptical. They have an incredible streak of dark pessimism, which is a reasonably good mind frame to have when operating in some schools in Scotland. One of the successes that our curriculum design should build on is the success that Scotland has made of the comprehensive school system—although I acknowledge that there have been passionate debates on that point. The system has been an incredible success if we consider the range of individuals who are involved in it, from all different social backgrounds.

What we have not yet cracked is the big problem that probably resulted in the changes in exams in the early 60s and the introduction of what was then called the O-grade. That was done not because the youngsters at the very bottom were not doing so well, but mainly because those people who thought that they were not doing so badly did not get a higher leaving certificate. We therefore invented the O-grade to ensure that their parents were not so disappointed at the end of four or five years' education. We have never addressed the issue of those who, according to the latest terminology, are now euphemistically called NEETS—the phalanx of NEETS, if I may choose a collective noun for those who are not in education, employment or training. In essence, we want to find a structure in the curriculum that addresses their needs.

The curriculum review's development of the idea that everything is continuous from the ages of three to 18 is very welcome. It will not be easy to implement, but we should all put our shoulder to the wheel when it comes to that commitment.

We need to get away from the sterile debate that emerged in the 1960s with the real demand of the development of comprehensive education, when it was thought that vocational education was not always suitable. I think that vocational education still has a role to play. Evidence from the secondary schools that serve the community that I represent shows that there is no doubt that the vocational focus has assisted a number of academic and non-academic individuals.

The third big issue on which the curriculum review touches is that it is important to consider not just how we get knowledge, through the repetition of information for example—important though that is—but how we negotiate that knowledge, which is the real test. Brian Adam mentioned repetition. I am fond of quoting a poem by Alexander Scott called, "Scotch Education", which consists of two lines:

"A telt ye

A telt ye."

I am a Glaswegian, so my third repetition would be, "Ah'm no tellin ye again."

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

On the subject of repetition, the Royal Air Force trains its pilots by a method called "see one, do one, teach one", whereby the instructor shows the pilot how to do something, the pilot shows that they can do it and then the pilot teaches the instructor how to do it.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

Sylvia Jackson said that I would want to talk about sport. As members can see from my svelte figure, I have been a success in that over the years. The critical issue is how we use sport and extra-curricular activities to enhance the curriculum.

I will finish with a wonderful story from Jimmy McGregor, who taught in Petershill junior school in the wonderfully named Auchentoshan Terrace in Springburn in the 1950s. He took a group of young scallywags from Petershill to Drymen for the day, because he wanted them to understand communion with nature. Little Johnny and his pals were looking at a wonderful bird—a blackbird, I should say—that was perched on a post. Jimmy asked little Johnny what he was thinking, hoping that his reply would be about the communion between the creature, the land and the seasons. Johnny's reply was, "I'm thinking, Mr McGregor, that if I had a boulder in my haun right noo, I could knock its heid aff frae here." That shows the gulf between reality and experience. I hope that we can do more through the curriculum review.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 4:32, 30 March 2006

The minister's report card to date would be that he works well and shows promise. As Frank McAveety said, there is still a gap between the intentions and the objectives that Peter Peacock has set out, which are being amplified through the curriculum review.

I am old enough to remember a lot of fashions in education, some of which were positively destructive in that they destroyed the morale of teachers, which I will come to later. I applaud fully the approach of grouping subjects. I have been nipping the minister's ear about grouping physical education, home economics and health education and to think of them as a group of subjects that are taught holistically.

I will stray into the territory of Robin Harper and others and say that history could be taught along with philosophy and perhaps economics. I would like philosophy to be introduced into the curriculum, given that we are talking about growing the whole child into the rounded, developed adult. The message is group them, but do not merge them. There is a big difference. If the minister indicates that he is not going to merge history with other subjects, which is the example on everyone's lips, I will be a happy MSP.

The nub of the matter is teacher training, which Robin Harper quite rightly mentioned. The teacher training colleges have courses that are not being introduced, tested or exploited. That should be happening at the same time that the curriculum review is being undertaken. A successful curriculum must be delivered by well-trained, confident teachers.

I believe that we need specialists, because a teacher who knows that they are on top of their subject is a confident teacher and a confident teacher is more likely to be able to deal with the biggest problem in the profession at the moment, which is the poor discipline that is evident in far too many classrooms and takes up far too much teaching time. I make a plea for specialists to be held on to, because they are usually inspired by their specialism and can, in turn, inspire pupils. If pupils are inspired by their teacher, all the indications are that they are less likely to kick up a ruckus in the classroom.

I make two pleas. One is for subjects not to be merged and the other is for the issue of teacher training to be examined at the same time as the curriculum is being examined. We must hold on to the best possible specialisms and specialist teachers. If we take appropriate action, we might not lose as many.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 4:36, 30 March 2006

I am pleased to sum up for the Labour Party in this debate and to welcome the proposals that were published in the curriculum review progress report on Monday.

The group was set up to identify the purposes of education and the principles of the design of the three-to-18 curriculum to ensure that Scottish education would be fit for the challenges of the 21st century. As I think that we have said in the chamber before, in the past, assessment and education was about failure, because the vast majority of people failed and only a small number of people would pass and get the sort of qualifications that would enable them to do well in life. Now, however, we aspire to a system in which all learners are successful learners. That is important in terms of enabling each individual to reach their full potential in all the ways to which Sylvia Jackson referred in relation to the 2000 act. However, it is also important in the production of a skilled workforce that is able to drive forward the knowledge economy, which we debated last week.

The report is still a work in progress and more detailed work will follow. However, there are a lot of interesting ideas in it. It suggests that the curriculum should be designed to develop the four capacities that Lord James Douglas-Hamilton commented on, but it is also intended to develop important skills such as numeracy and literacy. It takes the approach of having a single-curriculum framework throughout all the ages of school, from the age of three to the age of 18. As the minister and Iain Smith said, it tries to iron out the problems of transition. Iain Smith suggested that the teaching techniques that are used in nursery schools, such as active learning, could be extended into primary schools.

The report recognises that learning is delivered through several paths in school. Bill Butler pointed out that the ethos of the school is one of those paths. Others are the curriculum areas and subjects, interdisciplinary projects and personal development—a lot of outdoor education would come under that heading.

The report recognises that children learn in different ways and at different rates. Like the minister, I was interested in the different ways of describing progression and I am aware of the fact that educational experiences can be lateral as well as vertical. I do not know whether that is what Brian Adam was driving at when he talked about repetition, but it is possible to have enhancing understanding experiences, which are about not taking the pupil to a higher level but deepening the pupil's understanding of concepts at the level that they have reached.

The report suggests that there should be eight curriculum groupings in order to develop skills across a range of contexts. It is important to think of those as groupings and not mergers, because subject groupings will remain within those groupings. As I am a former scientist, like Brian Adam, I would like to see scientists regarded as heroes—actually, I would also like politicians to be regarded as heroes, but that could happen only in a parallel universe.

I was interested in the detailed exploration of the science curriculum in appendix 2 of the report. I wish that I had read it before last week's debate on the knowledge economy, because it reflected some of the points that I tried to make in that debate about the ways in which science education is delivered in the curriculum. The report suggests that the science curriculum up to and including secondary 3 would be based on the development of scientific skills, using three main groupings: the living world; the material world; and the physical world. That would replace the traditional science subjects and would involve pupils using real-life contexts for scientific study and engaging in thematic and interdisciplinary work to avoid the repetition that is not about enhancement but which occurs as a result of the same things coming up in different subjects.

It is important to encourage informed debate on current issues that face us all. Brian Adam touched on that. As Fiona Hyslop said, we all need to be scientifically literate, not just those of us who want to go on to be scientists.

If anybody has concerns about that approach, I reassure them that a similar approach was taken by the Open University in its structure of science foundation course, which I taught for a year. In that new course, we moved away from teaching physics, chemistry, biology and earth science to cover a variety of different contexts. To allay the fears of those who are worried about the diminution of subjects, I point out that, at the end of the course, students could decide to study chemistry, physics or whatever. However, the concepts and skills were introduced in a cross-disciplinary way that encouraged reflective learning.

Like the minister, I am interested in the review group's suggestions about learner-focused outcomes in which learners can recognise and describe what they have learned. That means not only that they can recognise the development of their essential transferable skills, but that they know what they have learned. That encourages self-esteem and is linked to motivation, so the focus on learner-focused outcomes is an interesting development.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 4:40, 30 March 2006

The debate has been interesting and informative. I am a little disappointed to see the Minister for Education and Young People here. That is not in any way a reflection on his speech, which was excellent. I just thought that he might be joining the exodus to Moray—like so many other members—as the former Labour candidate for that constituency. It is clear that, on this occasion, he decided that discretion is the better part of valour. However, when he is opening his mail in the next few weeks, he had better be careful that no packets of white feathers fall out.

I should declare an interest in that my wife is going through teacher training. The minister will be pleased to hear that she is a success in the Executive's campaign to recruit people to the profession.

The curriculum review is timely. Teachers often complain that there is a lack of flexibility, that they cannot tailor their lessons to pupils' needs and that the curriculum is too cluttered. The Conservatives certainly favour choice and flexibility at local level; we would dislike a top-down approach whereby the Executive sought to dictate to schools what subjects they should teach. We favour a localised approach. The buzzword of our party—and now, I believe, the buzzword of the Liberal Democrats—is "localism". Everybody seems to be talking about it.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

As with many Liberal Democrat ideas.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I will ignore that sedentary intervention.

We should recognise that there is a balance to be struck between flexibility and accountability. Most parents want assurances that their children are learning core subjects such as maths, English, science and history in a formal manner that will stand them in good stead in later life. However, we recognise that, within that, schools should have flexibility.

There is an issue about the crowded curriculum. In many debates in Parliament in the past few years, members have asked for more time for particular subjects. In debates on the arts, members say, "We must have more arts in schools." In debates on music, members say, "We must have more music in schools." In debates on sport, members say, "We must have more sport in schools." The following week, the same members are standing up asking the minister what he is going to do about the crowded curriculum. We need to take a joined-up approach. There is only so much that can be done within the school day, so we need balance. The key is to allow local decision making so that head teachers and schools can work out the best balance for themselves. Obviously, they should take account of the legitimate desires of ministers and politicians to, for example, encourage more sport so that youngsters are more active and so that we can deal with the problems of obesity and lack of exercise.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

What is the member's response to the teacher census, which shows that only 117 primary school teachers in Scotland specialise in physical education? The number has reduced by 40 since the previous census.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Fiona Hyslop makes a good point and I share her concern. If we are to encourage more youngsters to take up physical sport, we need people who can teach them. We will do that only if we have more PE teachers, especially in primary schools.

Stewart Maxwell, Margo MacDonald and others mentioned the teaching of history in schools. As a student of Scottish history, I think that we should make sure that youngsters have access to history, particularly Scottish and British history. That does not mean that every school must teach history in a particular way. In this, too, we should encourage schools to develop their own approaches. We should not have a set national curriculum and I do not agree with those who say that ministers should decide centrally how schools should order their curricula.

Brian Adam spoke passionately about science. We need to have science taught in our schools—that is in the interests of our economy. We know that there is concern about the lack of science and engineering graduates and that the needs of our economy are not necessarily being met. Perhaps too many of our youngsters are doing arts courses in our universities. The way to deal with that is not to set quotas but to engender in young people an interest in science. I endorse many of Brian Adam's comments about that.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton referred to foreign languages with reference to the economic needs of our country. Surely it makes sense to teach foreign languages. I do not mean just French; when I was at school everyone was taught French and, if they were lucky, some were taught German or Italian. Other than English of course, the languages of modern commerce are Spanish and Mandarin. Perhaps we should think about being a bit more adventurous in our teaching.

We believe that schools need more autonomy. We believe in devolving more power to head teachers, teachers and school boards, and we believe that giving schools more control over their curriculum will drive up standards in education.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 4:45, 30 March 2006

I intend to be a little more critical than most members in this afternoon's debate have been about the Executive's progress in achieving curriculum reform.

Graham Donaldson, her majesty's senior chief inspector of education, writing in the HMIE report called "Improving Scottish Education", highlights fundamental issues that have to be addressed by the curriculum review programme board and its working groups. The first point is that

"Clarity is required about those elements which should form part of every young person's education, irrespective of perceived ability, social background or school attended."

With the best will in the world, the progress report on the curriculum, which was published this week, suggests that we are still some considerable way from that objective.

I do not doubt the quality of the work that has been undertaken but, as the chief inspector remarks in a different context,

"commitment to self-evaluation must go beyond diagnosis to ensure that necessary action is taken and real improvement achieved."

The main messages of the process so far—that learning and teaching are at the heart of an effective curriculum—are hardly revelatory. What matters is how that insight will be translated into classroom practice to support successful learning, and to promote confidence, participation and responsibility. Margo MacDonald made some good points about teacher training, but why do we have to wait another 15 months—at the earliest—for the publication of detailed guidance?

That said, we broadly support the aims of the curriculum for excellence and we welcome proposals to unify the curriculum and to introduce a simplified progression framework that will free teachers to teach creatively to a depth and breadth that will engage all their pupils. The reduction of assessment overload is surely an absolute priority.

Stewart Maxwell and other members highlighted the adverse effect on primary school children of teaching to the test, but that approach is even more prevalent in secondary schools, particularly when attainment of qualifications becomes all-important. That is so true that most teachers now take the view that their main purpose is to train pupils in how to pass their exams rather than to educate children or to teach thinking skills and open their minds, thereby preparing them for the world of work and for lifelong learning.

The minister will be familiar with a report from teachers in the north-east of Scotland called "Listen to the Teachers", which was sent to him and to members of the Education Committee this month. It makes the point that we have, in effect, a mandatory national curriculum that is dictated by the SQA. The SQA sets the exams and thereby determines what is taught in our schools, which effectively stifles creativity. The pernicious nature of that state of affairs is highlighted by a history teacher who describes his experience of higher history courses. He said that ten years ago most teachers would have taught the whole course of ten topics, but that now most only teach four topics and those are gone over, and gone over again, giving pupils practise in every combination of essay that might come up in the exam. The result is that the experience of history is arid and technocratic.

Incidentally, another by-product of the situation is that teachers have abandoned the Scottish history element of the course—only 4 per cent do the Scottish question on the higher exam—because it is time-consuming and unnecessary. Given that reality, it is not nearly good enough for the minister to dismiss curriculum proposals by Professor Tom Devine and others by claiming that such ideas are not compatible with maintaining a non-statutory national curriculum in Scotland.

The progress report talks a good game. Its expressed goal is to give teachers more freedom to teach in innovative and creative ways. That chimes well with Graham Donaldson's calls for space for imaginative teaching that can capitalise on approaches that make learning relevant, lively and motivating, and for the system to be much more rigorous and explicit about the development and certification of essential skills such as literacy and numeracy for all pupils.

None of that is new thinking; the Howie committee made the same points back in 1992. Why has the review group borrowed our own watch to tell us the time—and taken 15 months to do so? Why will it take at least another 15 months for any detailed guidance that initiates reform to emerge? Scotland's pupils and teachers deserve better, and time is running out for the Executive to deliver.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:51, 30 March 2006

Given the number of teachers in the chamber, I—as a mere lawyer—rise with trepidation to reply to this excellent debate, which has been an example of Parliament at its best.

I have been struck most by the degree of consensus that members have displayed this afternoon. That encouraging sign shows that there is agreement across the major political interests—reflected in large part by agreement among professional interests—about the direction of travel in our education system. As Peter Peacock said, although we have much to be proud of in our education system, we also face a number of challenges.

As Murdo Fraser pointed out very effectively, these occasions tend to give rise to lists of special pleadings on the one hand and demands for decluttering the curriculum on the other. Those issues are at the heart of the curriculum review.

Adam Ingram might be surprised to learn that I do not disagree with a large part of his speech, in particular his comments about the extent to which teachers teach to exams. Such problems lie behind our approach. No doubt we will return to that difficult issue in future debates; however, it is essential that we start with the curriculum and then consider issues such as assessment, testing and examination procedures.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

We are moving towards consensus on the matter, but will the minister be more specific about how he will involve the SQA in particular in making assessment an integral part of developing the curriculum review?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

That is part of the developing process. I do not have enough time to deal with the matter now but, bearing in mind the member's earlier comments, I want to make it clear that this is very much a bottom-up process. I do not agree with Fiona Hyslop's opening remarks that not enough teachers have been involved in the process. In fact, thousands of teachers—and no fewer than 750 head teachers—have been involved in it. I believe that one of the review's strengths is the fact that a goodly proportion of the profession in Scotland has been involved in the discussion and debate on its development.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I am sorry—I have only five minutes.

Although Margo MacDonald took a slightly different perspective in highlighting—rightly—the need to involve the teaching colleges, I should set the record straight by pointing out that only yesterday 120 members of staff from all the teacher education institutions in Scotland attended one of a number of conferences that have been held to address teacher-training needs in the context of the curriculum review.

In my five minutes, I will be able to touch on only one or two of the many useful points that have been made in the debate. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton rightly highlighted the need to declutter and to create space; indeed, that major objective lies at the heart of what we are trying to do.

The issue of whether some courses might be lost has been raised, but members who have read the report will know that the suggestion is, rightly, that there should be groupings rather than mergers. The proposed groupings include health and well-being, languages, technologies, religious and moral education and, as was mentioned earlier, social studies. Those groupings give considerable scope to draw together different elements in working towards the objectives that we aim to achieve at the end of the curriculum review process. That is important.

As Iain Smith said, good teachers are at the heart of the review, and his points about the relevance of the curriculum were absolutely right. As Sylvia Jackson said, we do not have a national curriculum; we have a curriculum that is locally directed and modified by national guidance. I am sorry that I have not been able to mention outdoor education and various other issues.

Like devolution, the curriculum review is a process, not an event, so we must take time to get it right. We must engage all teachers, not least the brilliant new teachers who are coming into the profession through our aiming for the target of having 53,000 teachers by 2007. The increasing teacher numbers, combined with falling school rolls, give us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a step change in the quality of education for all young people. Young people are our future, which is why we want every one of them to fulfil their potential, to be effective, committed and thoughtful citizens and to contribute their skills and effort to Scotland and the Scottish economy. There can be a virtuous circle. The prizes will be great if we get that right and the curriculum review is central to achieving that. I thank members for their contributions to what has been an interesting and important debate.