Curriculum for Excellence fails to live up to its name

While Curriculum for Excellence should be lauded for its emphasis on holistic education and its willingness to trust teachers’ professional judgement, there is still a way to go before it can truly live up to its name, argues Jamie Thom
10th January 2020, 12:04am
Curriculum For Excellence Fails To Live Up To Its Name
Jamie Thom


Curriculum for Excellence fails to live up to its name

Iarrived back in Scotland last year, after a decade of teaching in English schools. Having now experienced teaching in two Scottish schools (one doing a short maternity cover, the other a permanent position), I finally feel I have enough of a grasp on what I'm doing to reflect on that most divisive of issues: the curriculum.

I will confess that for much of the first six months back in Scotland, it felt more like a Curriculum for Confusion than a Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

In part, this was down to my returning to a landscape that seemed completely altered in almost every way to my own experience of school. What had happened to my trusty Standard Grades? Why was everyone speaking in acronyms? Could the BGE be a particularly delightful sandwich? The most pressing question that has emerged for me since, though, relates to the reality of the CfE in the classrooms for us teachers. Does it truly embody what we might think of as an excellent - or, indeed, effective - curriculum?

Shaping young people's experience

No teacher or individual working in education needs any persuading about the degree of importance the curriculum has in directly shaping the experience of young people in the classroom. It is ultimately what they will do in the thousands of hours they grace the school building. It sets the tone and marks out what they will be investing their time in learning.

Even as I crossed the border last June, Ofsted was revamping its inspection framework for England, with a significant focus on the curriculum. Ingrained in its new framework are words that all revolve around intent, implementation and impact. Inspectors will soon be landing in English schools and asking questions about what is being taught, why it is being taught and why then.

Our friends south of the border are now engaged in heated and impassioned debate about what purpose the curriculum should serve: should it be unashamedly ambitious, academic and focused on improving the life chances of young people? Should it develop young people as empathetic and reflective individuals? Should it be preparing young people for the 21st-century skills they will need in the workforce? Or should it skilfully weave in all of the above and more?

How it all began

This national conversation started in Scotland more than 10 years ago, around the time I was scurrying off to England. In many ways, the discussion, and the subsequent journey, has been one of great turbulence.

Initially, the Curriculum for Excellence mission statement seemed crystal clear in its intent: to create learners who would be able to cope in this new fast-paced world. Its four capacities spoke of not just building "successful learners" but of generating "confident individuals", "effective contributors" and "responsible citizens". It also promised to deliver more professional freedom for teachers - something every teacher in the world yearns to hear. So far, so good.

From a neutral viewpoint, these seemed like eminently sensible and noble ambitions. We could engage in some debate over lexical choices, and question if developing "perseverance" might be a more worthwhile endeavour than "confidence", but overall there is much that does indeed look excellent on paper.

Six months in Scottish education, however, is enough to be privy to the grumbles and gripes of those who matter most: the teachers who have to put these lofty statements into practice. Some of my novice curriculum confusion is shared by teachers who have been through the whole process: the endless pages of documentation and the streams of benchmarks have added a significant amount of fuel to this particular disquiet. What was intended to enable professional freedom has instead, in many cases, resulted in sharp and resented increases in workload.

Alongside the impact that revamping a curriculum has on workload, another pressing and controversial question relates to the degree of academic challenge in the current Scottish curriculum.

A diluted offer?

Is the Scottish curriculum becoming progressively more diluted? Are examinations getting easier, and the body and content of knowledge we are expecting young people to know reduced?

Words such as "rigour", "expectations" and "challenge" have dominated the landscape of English education since Michael Gove changed the examination expectations so dramatically and ruthlessly (Gove and his ilk will, of course, feel more emboldened than ever after last month's general election). Literacy and reading skills, both in terms of my own subject, English, and the content of other subjects have become much more demanding for young people in England.

I am keen to highlight that the English system is leaving some students demotivated and languishing without useful qualifications. Of course, Scotland is a different context, but it is important to look closely at our system, too, and question if we can see what are surely key aims of any worthwhile curriculum: intellectual challenge and genuine thinking. Alongside this is the equally important question: are our pupils leaving school with the necessary numeracy and literacy skills they need to do well in life?

Clearly, an important aspect of this dialogue is the standard of the final examinations that our young people are being asked to complete. My four hours a week of teaching National 4 English is a case in point. Without any meaningful examination, and assessments that are lacking in any real depth, I have to think hard about how to engage, motivate and improve the skills of these students. To suggest that this particular course is diluted would be something of an understatement.

For younger pupils in England, key stage 3 (S1-S3) was dramatically dubbed "the Wasted Years" in a 2015 Ofsted report. Provocative question alert: is the BGE (disappointingly, not a sandwich but the "broad general education" of the first three years of secondary school) heading the same way?

There is much that is positive about the BGE: the scope for creativity, the freedom of choice, the collaboration and interactive learning that seem to dominate. Yet, is there the same focus on what young people need in the modern world: literacy and numeracy competency; the ability to retain and use knowledge and facts; the capacity to focus and develop their individual skills? Is it preparing students well enough for a senior phase that will still expect them to complete a series of examinations that test their knowledge of a subject?

A final, vital question is related to the gaps in attainment and is rightly a ubiquitous conversation in our schools. Are we, in fact, widening these gaps and doing our youngsters from more challenging backgrounds a disservice by not focusing on addressing some of the basic skills they need?

Professional freedom

One of the things that I found hugely appealing about a return to Scotland was the increase in professional freedom. I longed to have the opportunity to be more creative, and not to have to teach to a prescriptive specification that explained what I had to achieve at the end of each week. I deeply resented practices such as having to submit individual lesson plans on a daily basis, and wanted to feel that I was a trusted and respected professional.

Scotland has certainly delivered on this front: there is much more trust of individual teachers and we are given the ownership to lead on curriculum development and to work our own magic in our classrooms. This is liberating and energising but it does, of course, come with its own limitations. It could lead to a huge lack of consistency of the quality on offer in classrooms, with different perceptions of what constitutes an effective curriculum and, indeed, effective teaching, given free rein.

I am not advocating some sort of Orwellian scrutinising culture, but are we being open and imaginative enough about collaboratively exploring the degree of consistency within departments and schools?

I also worry about the impact of this on the work-life balance of new teachers: are we being collegiate enough and checking that these teachers are not, in fact, overwhelmed by this freedom? I have spoken to newly qualified teachers in some schools in Scotland who say that they are expected to create everything from scratch - a daunting and challenging task for any teacher, let alone one wrestling with the many demands of starting in a new school.

Beyond the classroom

There were also times in my experience in English schools when I felt deeply frustrated with the examination culture and endless discussion of data. Scottish education is such a breath of fresh air because of its emphasis on looking beyond classroom. It is deeply concerned with values and appreciating the individual qualities that young people have.

I would agree with Professor Rowena Arshad, of the University of Edinburgh, who spoke recently about the fact that Scottish teachers are focused on delivering an "all-round education" with the aim of producing "the next generation of civic-minded citizens". The schools I have experienced in Scotland are deeply humane and empathetic places, which see the value in creating different pathways and opportunities for young people. That has immense value in building effective relationships and helping young people feel a sense of trust in the education system.

Next steps

As impressive as this focus on relationships and holistic character development is, if we want to develop confident, articulate and thoughtful young people then they also need to be challenged and pushed to reach their full potential. To achieve this, we need to have serious collegiate conversations as schools and departments - conversations that unpick the purpose and value of the BGE years in particular.

Are we looking at introducing our young people to the best that has been thought and written about in our subjects? Is there a coherent plan for how their knowledge and skills will be progressively built upon in each of these years? Yes, there is creativity and freedom but is this balanced with some rigour and expectations that will prepare them for the senior phase?

I would argue that it is one of the real joys of our subjects, to see young people rise to challenges and be engaged in deep thinking. Of course it can't be achieved in every lesson, but there should be lots of opportunities for young people to sense the wonder and amazement that real intellectual content can provide for them.

Curriculum derives from the Latin verb currere, meaning "to run or proceed". If we are serious about providing a generation of Scottish children with a high-quality education, we cannot afford to merely blindly "proceed" with some aspects of Curriculum for Excellence. Instead, we may all need to take a slow, measured and reflective look at exactly what the standards are - and rethink how we are making sure that all our young people can achieve their very best.

Jamie Thom is an English teacher based in Scotland, who previously worked in England for around 10 years. His book, A Quiet Education, will be published next month. He tweets @teachgratitude1

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline "Room for improvement"

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