England can learn from Scotland's more fun, well-rounded education

Compared to exam-obsessed England, Scotland's officials have favoured a curriculum that looks beyond the grades, writes D.D. Guttenplan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 9:17am

In the leafy subdivision of East Dunbartonshire, outside Glasgow, the hallways of Bishopbriggs Academy were buzzing from a production of the musical Bugsy Malone the night before.

Inside Kathryn Macleod's English class, 12-year-olds were watching a clip from the film version of Louis Sachar's novel Holes, paying close attention to the actress Patricia Arquette. After making notes on Arquette's character and comparing her performance with the novel, the students each composed a director's note for the actress.

Down the hall, Lauren Neilson's science students were boiling red cabbage over Bunsen burners as part of a lesson about measuring acidity.

In the same week that Britain's education secretary, Michael Gove, announced yet another measure to make the national exams taken by secondary school students in England more rigorous, their counterparts in Scotland were taking a curriculum in which national exams for 16-year-olds had been abolished.

In recent years, schools in Britain, like those in the United States, have struggled under an increasing burden of testing and assessment designed to improve quality and to enforce some version of national standards. Critics of such changes have pointed to the success of Finland, which, despite imposing far fewer tests on its students, has consistently performed well in exams of the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Perhaps English parents and policymakers would do better to turn their attention slightly nearer. Education in Scotland has long been run differently from the rest of Britain. While schools in England encouraged students to specialise, Scottish schools traditionally aimed for a greater breadth of knowledge.

Scottish secondary education lasts six years, ending with national exams known as Highers and administered by a single exam board.

Meanwhile, English students take GCSEs (the exams that Gove keeps trying to change) at 16 and then A-levels before going to a university, with schools having a choice of three exam boards for each subject. Scottish degree programmes last four years, compared with three years in England and Wales.

In English, we are reading Dickens. But we also had time for trips
Beth Livingstone, student

In England, the current government and its predecessor put increasing emphasis on using standardised testing to determine which schools were underperforming. Based on these measures, they closed some schools, put others on "special measures" and turned yet others into "academies" answerable to the Education Ministry.

Scotland is taking another road. "When the Scottish Parliament came into being in 1999, we realised our schools were not performing as well as they should," the Scottish education minister, Michael Russell, says.

"Our students were overexamined, our schools were over-inspected and the curriculum was too bitty, too divided up and too shallow."

In 2005, Scotland introduced the Curriculum for Excellence. While education in England became increasingly prescriptive - with public debate on precisely what students were expected to know and whether, for example, there ought to be a greater focus on kings and queens, or the history of the British empire - the Scots decided to pay more attention to how subjects were taught.

"It felt like you were always lurching from one set of exams to the next," says Bill Maxwell, the chief executive of Education Scotland, the government agency charged with carrying out the curriculum. "So we decided it would be better to spend less time jumping through hoops, making the syllabus more flexible and more interdisciplinary."

Starting with kindergarten, the curriculum has progressed through the system one year at a time, and has just reached Stage 4, for the 16-year-olds, who, until this year, would have taken Standard Grade exams. Students still take exams in as many as 15 subjects but those are pass or fail, and set by their teachers.

The curriculum is designed to encourage students to make connections between subjects; the emphasis is on debate and discussion over memorisation.

Gordon Moulsdale, head teacher at Bishopbriggs, is adamant that the changes have meant no loss of rigour. "I don't believe for a minute that Curriculum for Excellence is touchy-feely or that we are watering down standards."

In February, the school - which Moulsdale described as being about three to five kilometres of some of the poorest areas in Europe - received four "excellent" ratings from Scottish inspectors.

"Some people believe that increasing assessment increases standards, but we've moved away from that," says Barry Smedley, the school's deputy head. "It used to be that only students who did well in exams were thought of as the smart ones. But we've learned that there are … different kinds of intelligence."

The changes mean a slightly longer school week, and more time for music, drama, sports and community service - precisely the areas squeezed in England by the need to prepare students for so many exams.

Beth Livingstone, a secondary student who plans to study English and history at university, says students appreciate the variety. "In English, we are reading Dickens," she says. "But we also had time for trips."

The curriculum does demand more from teachers, who are expected to be more creative.

But with her students "constantly actively thinking", Macleod says she finds teaching the curriculum "more enjoyable".

Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest Scottish teachers' union, says: "We believe the new curriculum offers much for Scotland's pupils." But he adds that there is also "significant concern about the level of resources that have been put in place".

Flanagan says union members have asked the government to delay applying the secondary school portion of the curriculum to give teachers and students more time to prepare for the new Highers to be introduced next year.

But he adds there is "no appetite" for "the more selective, competitive and test-driven approach being promoted by Gove in England".

Gove, born and educated in Scotland, did not respond to requests for comment.

Back in Neilsen's class, the cabbage had been boiled and students were putting drops of purple liquid in plastic trays.

"I want you to use words from Bloom's Taxonomy to define the success criteria for this experiment," she says.

One boy proposed, "We want to analyse how red cabbage can be used as an indicator."

Smedley, the Bishopbriggs deputy head, says: "The idea is to make our objectives explicit. Students need to know not just what we want them to do, but why we are asking them to do it."

Will Scotland's experiment succeed? Russell, the minister, contends it already has.

"Before, we were operating under a 19th-century definition of education, which was about restricting access and passing exams," he says.

"There was a tendency to define the success of a system by how many people failed the tests. In the 21st century, I think that's ridiculous and we've moved beyond that kind of thinking."

The New York Times