Is the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland working? If not, can it be changed? Lindsay Paterson explains the reasons behind the recent disquiet and writes that although it may be a plausible culprit for the decline in students’ performance, the curriculum is so deeply embedded that removing it would cause enormous upheaval. And, since children get only one chance to learn, a whole generation will have been betrayed.
Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence might not, at first sight, appear to be controversial. An outsider might notice the remarkable consensus that has accompanied its development at the heart of policy for school education. The report which launched it in 2004 is still endorsed by all five political parties in the Scottish Parliament.
That report proclaimed a child-centred philosophy that ran counter to the educational ideas that have dominated in England since the 1980s. Teachers would be given autonomy to decide what to teach. The curriculum would be based on the application of knowledge, not its abstract propositions. The SNP, Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens may now argue vociferously over whether the curriculum is a beacon of progressive ideas or an under-funded shambles, but they are all responsible for its existing at all.
The consensus extends also to every vested interest in Scottish education. The teacher trade unions have signed up to it so enthusiastically that they have been represented on its management board. The local authorities, responsible for managing public-sector schools, offered no dissent. The universities officially accepted the ideas uncritically, with their teacher-education faculties notably enthusiastic. Even critically supportive assessments were very unusual (but see that from Professor Mark Priestley).
Yet the curriculum has recently been the centre of widespread disquiet. The arguments are of a uniquely Scottish kind because they pit the entire leadership class in policy against maverick outsiders. So these critiques are partly invisible. But they reflect a sense that a once-admired education system is now mediocre.
That decline is most evident in the three-yearly studies run by the OECD – the Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures the attainment of students aged around 15. Scotland used to be well ahead of the OECD average. It has now sunk to average, not only because other places have advanced rapidly but also because there has been an absolute Scottish decline. Similar conclusions are reached by the annual Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, which has shown since 2011 a fall in attainment in both of these curricular areas among children in primary school and in early secondary.
None of this can conclusively be said to be the consequence of the new curriculum since no proper baseline data were ever collected that would allow us to trace the curriculum’s impact. The inadequacy of Scottish educational data is itself a scandal. The present SNP government withdrew Scotland from other international studies that would have told us more about what is being learnt. The pre-2007 coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats abolished the Scottish School Leavers’ Survey, an internationally renowned source that had been running biennially since the 1960s. Now the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy is also being abolished. Scottish education is a data desert.
But the reason why the new curriculum is a plausible culprit for the decline lies in what it gets children to learn. It belongs to that strand of curricular thinking sometimes known as constructivism. The essence of this view is that studying bodies of knowledge is pedagogically ineffective. Knowledge goes quickly out of date, and learning it is dull. Children emerge allegedly unable to think for themselves, unskilled for work in the new economy, and unprepared to act as democratic citizens. Instead, children should be enabled to construct knowledge for themselves.
The defenders of the curriculum deny that knowledge is being neglected, but the survey results and the details of the voluminous curricular documents belie that. There is no recognition in the curriculum of a canon of necessary ideas or practices – no acknowledgement of any kind of theoretical framework that might give coherence to each curricular subject.
Thus the basis of the new curriculum is in what is now the standard ideology of the academic left in education – a revivified version of 1960s fashion, supported by OECD advisers. It is increasingly clear from international comparisons that neglecting knowledge is educationally disastrous. One body of international evidence for that is assembled by E. D. Hirsch in his 2016 book Why Knowledge Matters. Especially cogent arguments in the same vein have come from two teachers in England who have become eloquent writers – Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education (2013) and David Didau’s What if Everything You Knew about Education was Wrong (2015). The critique does not deny that skills matter, but rather says that the best way to acquire skills is through gaining knowledge.
Consider, for example, a cross-curricular theme of the kind that the new curriculum encourages: asking 12-year-olds to investigate a local canal. There are potential themes relating to ecology, economic history, gender relations in the past, sport and exercise today, and much else. Fine, but none of this makes proper sense without some systematic knowledge of each of these specific contexts. The ecology of a particular place can be understood only in an overarching framework of how plants and animals co-exist. Interpreting the history of a two-century-old mode of transport requires a wider understanding of the industrial revolution. And so on: new knowledge requires old knowledge.
The argument against Curriculum for Excellence is therefore that subject disciplines are not merely arbitrary. They are the refinement of knowledge that has been gradually built up over centuries. In relation to that knowledge, each new generation of children are no more than humble apprentices. Knowledge can therefore be emancipating, and knowledge acquired through schools provides that opportunity to people who would not get it from home. If schools stop teaching structured knowledge, then inequality of access to knowledge will widen, because the children of the well-educated and the wealthy will get it in other ways.
So, despite initial appearances, the controversy is actually intense. Curriculum for Excellence is now so deeply embedded that removing it would cause enormous upheaval which teachers – exhausted after this reform – would never tolerate. There is no chance that an easy way out can be found. And, since children get only one chance to learn, a whole generation will have been betrayed.
Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy at the University of Edinburgh.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.
Building the four capacities, valuing different types of intelligence, exciting the learning and making it relevant rather than breaking spirits are among the key drivers of CfE. We have come a long way from the aye been & no success like failure culture that dominated Scottish life. Closing the attainment gap, improving outcomes and getting it right for every child by putting health and wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum is happening where a whole school nurturing approach has been embraced. This ethos has created a new generation. They believe in themselves and are more politically engaged. It’s the barriers to implementation of CfE we need to identify. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
(Cont. If previous post)
… Which leads me to what I believe to be a huge mistake in the CfE: the extension of the “Broad General Education” into S3. Pupils need 2 years (S3 and S4) to prepare for National 5 examinations. The pressure in schools to cover the BGE in S3 and officially embark on N5 in S4 has not resulted in schools reducing pupil options to the required 5 subjects in S4 in order to allow time to complete N5 courses. I, like many others in the teaching profession, am very glad about this as I feel it would limit pupil choices on progression pathways into S5/6 too much. So the only solution is to disregard S3 BGE and embark upon N5 courses at this stage instead.
I’m afraid, as a Science teacher, I cannot agree with L Paterson that we have lost any focus on “Knowledge”. Our Science courses at National 5 and Higher are so jam packed with mandatory Knowledge and Understanding outcomes that it is impossible to complete the courses in a single year of 200 min (4 periods) per week. Which leads me to one of the biggest mistakes
The whole reason that our children cannot learn the knowledge they need to is that they have become incapable of learning anything that they do not fully enjoy. There is not now and never has been a conjoining of the ideas that pupils can direct and take responsibility for their own learning and that employers ant to see a basic understanding of fundamentals.
Some key flaws in CfE’s implementation:
1. No active training of Scottish teachers in CfE principles in any clear or simple way. Schools were given voluminous tomes containg CfE policy and principles and told to get their heads around it. Therefore it was at the whim of whichever interpretation a particular local authority, or – let’s not be coy – headteacher had of CfE.
2. Cart before horse roll out of new Scottish school buildings and renovations. Many of which deleted the virtual hair salons, swimming pools, theatres, labs, garages and kitchens CfE would necessitate they retain. therefore the further “Grange Hill” approach of sit-and-listen-to-teacher was reinforced as what teaching and learning is.
3. Mike Russell was not the man to sell this to schools or steer it. I am an SNP supporter and I recognise this. He chucked the big green folders into schools, slammed the doors and the implicatin was “just swear wording do it!” Whatever “it” was.
4. There is still vagueness as to what CfE truly means. The practical courses CfE apparently encouraged are still add-ons and live or die by whether schools support them. Standard Grade was culled in favour of “the Nationals” when in fact – a Scottish government knowing austerity was encroaching – CfE should have been repealed, cleaved in twain and dumped in the Forth and Clyde.
5. I don’t mean to be cynical but the ideals that brought about CfE were sound. Implementation and roll out was botched and uninspiring, difficult and in some cases impossible.
CfE was the Elephant. The Scottish teaching profession were the blindfolded men – from the Hindu fable – trying to work out what it was.
Incredibly concise and accurate description. Thank you.
That describes the problems perfectly
Could not agree more!
Here in Canada our teacher unions have a lot to say about curriculum development. They have a major role in PD (professional development). They produce packets, lesson plans and other materials for class work. They sponsor speakers and consultants and constructivism has been brought into this country in no small part because of teacher union initiatives. We have ten provinces with separate education departments and some provinces have more militant teacher unions that have considerable sway
As an American ex-pat in New Zealand I can’t claim to know much about the Scottish education system, but I do have a sense of the broad strokes of education and I largely agree with Professor Paterson’s comments. Certainly in the US, and apparently elsewhere, primary and secondary education seems to have become one experiment after another, with children as lab rats. It is apparent that the overall philosophy underpinning education that I was a product of has been abandoned, a victim of identity politics, an embrace of a commercial culture and emphasis on work readiness, and an intolerance of structure. Knowledge is critically important for all the reasons the professor cites. Do kids still do multiplication and division tables? I did and I firmly believe it gave me a facility with numbers – now called numeracy – by developing pathways in the brain that allowed me to do simple calculations faster than someone with a calculator. My knowledge of history and geography allows me a deeper understanding of international events beyond what you might get from scanning the headlines on your way to your email.
We didn’t learn about entrepreneurship, gender politics, LGBT, American atrocities, etc., at least not in elementary school. We were too busy learning how to read and write, and the teachers were good at that. At the time, knowledge was taught in a way that it built on itself over time, with more detail and sophisticated analysis as you progressed through the system. To take a crude thought experiment – in elementary school we learned that George Washington was the father of our country. In high school we learned that he had wooden teeth. In college we learned he made his money as a smuggler. But we had a context for all those stages. Now it seems that “knowledge” has become one dimensional; someone has decided that the only important thing about George Washington is that he was a smuggler. A context allowed for development of critical thinking skills that helped us develop our own view of George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln, or John F Kennedy.
Of course much has changed since then – a lot more history, computers as learning tools, changing demographics and economy, etc. But young brains are still young brains and should be taught the basics first, and the more nuanced and challenging stuff later. In my professional life I have had the opportunity to work with many businesses and in that time I have heard nearly all of them lament the lack of basic skills in the labour force – basic numeracy and literacy. And to show that the emphasis on “job readiness” has failed, they also cite a lack of reliability (an appreciation that you’re supposed to show up), and drug use on the job. If knowledge and basic skills are being sacrificed in the name of creating a work force/consumers, rather than insightful citizens, then the system is a failure all the way around. After all, the children of the 50s and 60s didn’t do too badly with their “primitive” education.
Well said I cannot agree more.
Dear Profesor Paterson,
It is always refreshing to read your views on the CfE and I want to commend you for having maintained a principled stance against in face of such overwhelming opposition From th establishment. I wrote to you some time ago expressing my support for you and in the time since the fears you had about the CfE have been confirmed in full. I do no have time to say much here but one of the most obvious features is the utter confusion about what it actually means, in fact it can mean anything and everything. I have not read a singe coherent definition by anyone in authority,in fact most of what is written is so vague and jargon ridden as to be utterly worthless. That is one of the problems that we a site teachers face, the sheer volume of meangliss paperwork that has been dumped upon us, it has grown to gargantuan proportions with the result that it is practically impossible to find quickly essential information. To be honest, I think the game is up for Scottish education, the decline has gone too far and those in power have a vested interest in pretending that everything’s is working well. Depressing and demoralising, especially since, as you point out , our own unions have gone along with the whole farce, for reasons I cannot fathom. Anyway, thanks again for your work. It is good to know that there is someone with substance who stands with us.