Developing the Young Workforce will define Scottish education

DYW is a ‘game-changer’ – and it has Curriculum for Education to thank for that

CfE doesn't change Scottish education

When asked to define Scottish education in recent times, which three-letter abbreviation would you use? Granted, it’s a niche question – not the kind you’d be likely to encounter in Trivial Pursuit. But for education anoraks keen to play this specialist parlour game, the answer seems simple: CfE, short for Curriculum for Excellence.

Well, perhaps. Certainly, like a February-morning haar in Aberdeen, CfE is impossible to avoid. We’ve been talking about it ad nauseam since a “national conversation” in 2002. But ubiquity isn’t equivalent to impact, and CfE has widely come to be viewed, at best, as a missed opportunity – something that promised a radical departure from what came before but has fallen far short.

A litmus test is this time of year, a week into exam season. The long-established practice of cramming knowledge for exams was at odds with CfE’s aspirations for something more meaningful in the latter years of secondary school. In 2019, however, you still hear teachers saying they’ve done nothing but teach to the test since January. How CfE’s architects would have wept if they knew teachers would be in that situation nearly two decades later.

Another commonly cited problem of the CfE era is that there has been – ironically, given its ambition to individualise each student’s experience of education – a “narrowing of the curriculum”. This was the focus of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee on Wednesday.

It’s a potentially misleading debate, however. The supposed narrowing of the curriculum is concerned with subject choices in the senior phase. Setting aside arguments about the extent to which this is happening, there’s a basic flaw in the reasoning: by looking only at subject choices – largely at National 5 and Higher – it misses what appears to be a widening of the curriculum in other ways.

This fixation with exams and academic subjects – plus ça change – ignores the fact that, in many schools, there is now a much richer range of opportunities. Last week, for example, I visited a secondary with a spaghetti junction of pathways for its senior pupils – where apprenticeships and college courses truly do have “parity of esteem” with university, to use the jargon – and a determination to bend the curriculum to individual aspirations. If that means pupils going to another school for a certain Advanced Higher or spending some of the week in college, or teachers setting up a work placement with an employer they’ve not dealt with before, then the school’s attitude is, so be it.

Which gets us back to the question posed at the top. While the Pavlovian response to CfE may now be to roll one’s eyes and whistle through gritted teeth, there’s another three-letter abbreviation that gets a very different response: DYW.

“Developing the Young Workforce” may be an equally uninspiring, chosen-by-committee title. But whereas CfE is typically viewed as falling short, the reaction to DYW – a far newer kid on the block – feels very different. Visiting schools, I’ve been struck by how often it’s cited as a positive influence, a driver of cultural change that has gone beyond its initial promise to boost vocational education.

For example, one special school depute head said that, while she wasn’t sure those behind DYW were really thinking of her sector, it was a “game-changer”, helping to create work and training opportunities for school-leavers with complex needs.

It’s far too simplistic to label CfE a flop and DYW a success, as the two are inextricably interlinked: the failings of one must be considered alongside the successes of the other. In short, look beyond the portents of doom for Scottish education – there’s still much to be encouraged about.


This article originally appeared in the 3 May 2019 issue under the headline “Three letters define Scottish education (clue: they’re not CfE)”