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A once envied reputation trashed – why Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is anything but

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THERE CAN BE very few people left in Scotland who consider Curriculum for Excellence to have been a positive step forward for the Scottish education system.  Those who do are wilfully blinding themselves to the steady fall in educational standards, while the rest of us are deeply concerned about the future prospects for young people in Scotland, and for the wider economic impact of a weakened education system.

Initially, there was widespread enthusiasm for the aims and principles of CfE. On a personal level, I was firmly in favour of an increased emphasis on literacy and numeracy, an expectation of greater knowledge of the world beyond the confines of examination syllabi, and an increased level of respect for others and acknowledgement of personal responsibility.

There were professional gains to be made also; teachers were assured of greater classroom autonomy, a stronger emphasis on individual professional expertise.  So enthusiastic was I that in my school we started taking steps to achieve the aims of CfE before guidance was issued.  I delivered in-service courses to fellow Head Teachers on strategies they might adopt.  The crushing disappointment in schools when the government implementation strategies arrived was palpable.

What went wrong?  The first and most crucial mistake was the amalgamation of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate with Learning and Teaching Scotland to form Education Scotland.  At the time, it was rather naively assumed to be a cost cutting measure.  It was in fact the first evidence of the SNP determination to centralise and control every aspect of Scottish society.  Once the independence of the inspectorate had been removed, there was no bulwark against falling standards, no voice to be raised against ineffective teaching methods, or inadequate curriculum content, or restrictive curriculum structures.  The purpose of HMIe became the implementation of CfE regardless of its value to individual pupils or the system as a whole.  The scene was set for a steady downhill trend in standards, a trend that HMIe completely failed to identify until international studies rubbed their collective noses in it.

Implementation of CfE generated vast quantities of ill-thought-out guidance on content and methodologies.  The sheer volume of it overwhelmed teachers and senior managers.  The curriculum was couched in a series of childish ‘I can…’ statements which was both unprofessional and condescending to teachers.  It lacked rigour; does ‘I can add two fractions’ mean ¼ + ¼ or 3/13 + 7/9?  These examples both meet the description but involve significantly different levels of skill and understanding.  The lack of inbuilt standards allowed a steady decline to ensue.  The modern language curriculum contained references to pupils using different registers, this despite the inability of many pupils to grasp the most basic language skills.  The notion that they could choose to speak more or less formally depending on the circumstances was simply laughable.

Just as an aside, none of the guidance ever contained the names of the personnel involved in its production.  Not one individual or group was prepared to take responsibility for any of the documentation.

The curricular guidance mandated interdisciplinary learning, in the form of projects, with no evidence to substantiate the claim that this is an effective teaching strategy.  Teachers were berated for teaching within subject specialisms, and were to be pushed ‘outside their comfort zones’.  In other words, it was considered to be beneficial that teachers should teach subjects in which they had little or no expertise.  It is tempting to use the American phrase, go figure.  This particular curriculum change had a double whammy effect.  The interdisciplinary projects often had little worthwhile educational content as they were totally artificial constructs involving subjects with no background in joint working, maths and music, say.  But the projects also reduced the teaching time available to teach the individual subjects.

Meanwhile, the favoured teaching methodologies worked in direct opposition to the aim of improving literacy and numeracy.  Teachers were encouraged to move away from ‘passive learning’ and use ‘active learning’ instead.  There are two problems with this approach.  The first is that there is no such thing as passive learning.  Acquiring knowledge and skill is difficult and requires active mental effort.  How many times have you typed a credit card number into your laptop, but would be unable to recite the number if required?  If you have made no conscious, sustained effort to learn it, then you will not remember it.

In the CfE context, passive is a collective adjective for sitting still, paying attention and concentrating, the three most important behaviours associated with worthwhile learning.  Teachers who employed strategies which encouraged or relied on these behaviours were considered to be at fault.

The second problem is that the concept of active learning is open to as many interpretations as there are teachers.  But the easiest one to implement is, quite literally, to keep children moving in the classroom, with different activities in different locations.  Taken to its extreme, there are now classrooms in Scotland which contain fewer chairs than there are pupils, to force the teacher to keep them on the move!  Another strategy is to avoid the use of textbooks or worksheets, clearly demonstrating that there is no passive learning happening here. Exactly the worst possible conditions for improving literacy and numeracy, subjects which require quiet concentration.  So it is that while Scotland has fallen down the international rankings across the board, it is specifically in reading, writing and mathematics that the fall has been so striking.

One of the very obvious consequences of CfE has been the narrowing of subject choice in the final years of secondary school. Extending a broad general education into S3 had the effect of reducing the time available to study for examinations at the end of S4.  The only way to counter this problem was to reduce the number of subjects.   Pupils have found themselves with fewer academic qualifications and, much worse, far less choice of subject in S5 and S6.  The children who have suffered the least are those in schools which paid lip service to CfE but actually implemented as little of the guidance as they could get away with.  The situation in Scotland would be much worse if all schools had fully complied with the guidance being churned out by Education Scotland.  What an indictment of the educational establishment.

Who would have predicted all this?  Well, many of us did and we repeatedly warned what would happen.  The SNP inability to listen to experts has severely damaged our education system.  It resulted in the fruitless waste of time over the Named Person scheme, the exam results shambles in August of this year and the excessive narrowing of the secondary school curriculum in the senior years, exactly the opposite of the aims of CfE.  Warned repeatedly in advance, no notice taken.

And what became of greater teacher autonomy?  Teachers now are significantly more constrained by the current orthodoxies than at any time in the past.  The loss of HMIe independence resulted in an inspection regime which rewarded CfE characteristics over any attempt to judge actual outcomes.  Many teachers now operate to a rigid structure within their classrooms, involving learning outcomes, starters, success criteria, plenary sessions, exit strategies, and a plethora of management strategies which have no known impact on learning.  They are wary of didactic teaching even when that might be the most effective approach.

If ever an educational initiative was misnamed, it has to be Curriculum for Excellence.

Scotland’s worldwide reputation is now long gone and it will take a marathon effort to recover it.  Scotland’s young people are no longer on a level educational playing field in an increasingly technological age which demands high standards.  This is simply unfair on an individual level, and it is increasingly problematic for Scotland as a country.

Photo by shefkate from adobe Stock

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