Henry Hepburn

We can admire the ideals of CfE even if we rue the reality

Whatever the fate of Curriculum for Excellence, the moral purpose behind it is needed more than ever, says Henry Hepburn

The principles behind Curriculum for Excellence are admirable - even if the reality is frustrating, says Henry Hepburn

When talking to a primary head from Glasgow last month, I had a flashback to years gone by. The head, who works in a particularly deprived part of the city, enthused at length about Curriculum for Excellence.

It was the sort of conversation I used to have frequently: she waxed lyrical about how every school required a unique approach, and how CfE gave her the freedom to pursue whatever worked best for her pupils.

That enthusiasm has died away over the years, as the passion for the ideals driving CfE has given way to frustration with the realities of the reform. The nadir, arguably, was when it emerged a few years back that the curriculum – which was supposed to liberate teachers and provide clarity of purpose – had spawned 20,000 pages of online guidance.

CfE was conceived – and almost unanimously supported by the teaching profession – in a “national conversation” in 2002. Those were different times: Labour still seemed impregnable in Scottish politics, Roger Federer hadn’t won anything of note and most teens had to wait for their parents to get off the phone if they wanted to go online.

Babies born that same year are now old enough to drive, and many have already waved goodbye to school. They have been part of some big changes, but closer scrutiny makes you wonder how far we’ve really come in Scottish education since 2002.

The issue of inclusion

Take inclusion, for example: the presumption of mainstreaming, enshrined in 2004 legislation, means that many more children with additional support needs now attend the same school as most of their peers. Only last week, however, amid concerns that the money and staff were just not there to make inclusion work, MSPs unanimously agreed to review the presumption.

What about pay? In 2002, the profession was renewed and reinvigorated, after the 2001 McCrone deal limited working weeks to 35 hours, dramatically boosted salaries and paved the way for teachers to attain a status comparable to other skilled professionals.

Fast-forward to 2019, however, and we are in the midst of union ballots, driven by discontent over pay and workload, that could lead to the first national teacher-led strikes since the 1980s.

What about CfE itself? It promised a more enlightened approach, where the success of all students mattered and fusty notions of hierarchies of subjects – “academic” implying “superior” – would be banished. How’s that holding up? Not so well, when Midlothian Council has proposed becoming the first local authority to scrap instrumental music tuition (bit.ly/MidlothianMusic). All subjects are equal in Scotland until the money starts running out – then, you see that some are still, ultimately, expendable (see pages 16-22).

We should not lose sight of the commendable progress that has been made, such as areas where there have been huge strides in closing the gap in attainment for those from deprived backgrounds. But how long can that be sustained when child poverty rates are, for the first time in decades, going in the wrong direction?

CfE’s inherent optimism seems out of time in an era of Brexit, Trump and cataclysmic climate change. It was, of course, proposed before the 2008 global financial crash, whose ripple effects are only now hitting the shores of local education budgets. We should not underestimate how hard a job councils are going to have simply maintaining the status quo, never mind attempting ambitious reforms.

Let’s not forget, however, that, for all its mismanagement, CfE was underpinned by a moral purpose and a desire for social justice that are defining features of Scottish education. Whatever the ultimate fate of CfE as a policy, the ideals that drove it are needed now more than ever.


This article originally appeared in the 8 February 2019 issue under the headline “Let’s return to the high ideals that sparked a ‘national conversation’”