The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Opinion: Scotland's Curriculum: glass half full or half empty?

Against a background of concerns about workload and bureaucracy, some establishments are making impressive progress in implementing CfE and embedding a culture of empowerment, collaboration and equity.

The closing weeks of last session finished with a flourish of fertile and heart-felt commentary in hard copy and on social media regarding matters curricular. As might have been expected, a number of the pieces rehearsed the well-worn arguments of the pros and cons of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) that we have come to expect; the extent to which it was/wasn’t having a positive impact on learner outcomes; the extent to which it was/wasn’t challenging/dumbing down; and the extent to which it was offering wider opportunities/ narrowing choices.

However, there were a number of articles that stood out as challenging the norm. In acknowledging the need for a “productive conversation” on the curriculum and assessment, Professor Louise Hayward of the University of Glasgow usefully reminded us in TESS of the wider context in which Scottish education found itself when CfE was introduced. She identified four problems that needed to be addressed at that time:

  1. dissatisfaction with S1/S2;
  2. S2 being too early for young people to make curricular choices;
  3. the unhelpful distinction between “academic” and “vocational learning; and
  4. the “two-term dash” to Higher in S5.

In looking to solutions to CfE problems, Hayward suggests the focus needs to be on teachers and others answering the question “What matters?”. Importantly, she points out that if we believe the original aspirations of CfE are still relevant, then we need to “narrow the gap between what we would like to happen and what actually happens in schools and classrooms”.

In an equally thought-provoking TESS article, Melvyn Rolfe, Principal of George Watson’s College, notes the “painful mismatch between our lofty ambitions and knee-jerk reactions” in Scotland where “Children are educated in a system that owes far more to the deliberations of the last century than a determination to face the imponderable challenges of the next decade or two”.

Rolfe’s solution is for “extraordinary trust to be shown to the teaching profession” empowered to design a curriculum “that made attainment in numeracy and literacy the non-negotiables, but was non-prescriptive about how that should be achieved – and in particular when it should be assessed”. Rolfe’s recipe for curriculum design is to free the curriculum from the “shackles of assessment” and have teachers, school leaders, parents, employers and universities design how curricular outcomes should be delivered.

Professor Mark Priestley of the University of Stirling in his TESS article “The first question: what is curriculum?” reminds us that “the school curriculum is highly complex” and that careful and collaborative thought must be applied to translating policy into practice. Priestley points out that any curriculum must comprise a process of considering curriculum purposes, the systems and structures that make up curriculum provision, teaching strategies and assessment methods.

Although all the articles present different perspectives and come from very different backgrounds, their key messages carry an uncanny similarity. They all raise issues about the purposes of education in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond; how we design a curriculum that best prepares young people for the changing society within which they will be taking their place as citizens; the need for any curriculum to be planned locally to meet local needs and contexts; and the critical role of teachers and school leaders in ensuring that, whatever the curriculum design, it has to be predicated on high quality teaching and enriching experiences for children and young people.

Coincidentally, all of these articles come at a time when, in the last year, we have seen the publication of the Education Reform Joint Agreement between Scottish and local governments which is based on the key principles that schools are empowered to make the decisions that most affect outcomes for their young people. Published support materials on Empowering School Leaders point to the need to create cultures that foster trust and teacher agency which support and enable collaborative professionalism.

More recently, we have seen an independent panel on career pathways for teachers complete its work with the proposal that new career pathways are established, including the creation of Lead Teacher posts. And significantly, we are also about to see the publication of a refreshed narrative for CfE which will set the Scottish curriculum in a contemporary context. It has been designed to help practitioners take the philosophy of CfE and translate it into practice through a process of curriculum making. The article on page 22 gives more detail on this important digital resource.

None of these more recent publications and resources take away from the fact that many establishments, against a background of continuing concerns about workload and bureaucracy, have already made impressive progress in implementing CfE and embedding a culture of empowerment, collaboration and equity.

Optimists might suggest that perhaps, at last in Scottish education, there is an alignment emerging between policy and the infrastructure needed to support it. Pessimists might suggest it is too little, too late and that little of what has emerged adequately addresses the real challenges faced in the system.

Perhaps the reality is that both have a point; it just depends upon your perspective of education in Scotland; whether or not you support being positive and talking up teaching; whether your glass is half full or half empty.