Curriculum is ‘stacked against the poorest in society’

The time is ripe for a radical rethink of Scotland’s exams and Curriculum for Excellence, say these educators

Isabelle Boyd, Neil McLennan, Robin Macpherson and George Gilchrist

Curriculum is 'stacked against the poorest in society'

The furore about the 2020 SQA exam diet and concerns about next steps for 2021 have not died down. Over the past few weeks, we have heard and read comments about the current system that a few years ago we couldn’t even have dreamt of.

Various pieces at our exam.scot website have been picked up by the media and we are now getting our heads around the cancellation of next year’s exams – and the long-term future of exams as well as thinking about reimagining Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

There is an almost universal agreement that the current system is stacked against the poorest in our society.

This is music to my ears. For many months now, a group of us has been exploring a CfE 2.0 – a reimagining of the curriculum for Scotland. We do not agree on a single way forward but we are continuing to explore possibilities.


Also this week: Covid 'is a chance to redesign Scottish education'

Expert view: Could cancelling exams permanently reshape assessment?

Background: Scotland's 2021 exams cancelled by education secretary


In June 2019, the RSA (Royal Society of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures) and EduMod co-hosted a “CfE 2.0 Gaitherin’” exploration session at Moray House in Edinburgh. It was clear that there was a need for further discussion and debate, and more events followed (the papers can be seen here).

There are some common threads:

  • We have a system that only values what it can measure, and after 10 years of CfE, we have no evidence of significant improvement in all aspects of pupil learning.

  • There is a lack of pedagogical underpinning of CfE, and continually adding to the curriculum with nothing taken away brings confusion and frustration.

  • There are tensions around transitions at broad general education (BGE) to senior phase and from school to university.

  • We still have the exam treadmill with “final” exams in S4, then S5 and then S6 – and the “two-term dash” to qualifications still exists.

  • There are too many layers of accountability/support in a country of our size.

  • There are many exciting and radical possibilities that we should be discussing and debating.

There is, however, a sense of a movement gathering in Scotland. Scotland’s Futures Forum, the Scottish Parliament think-tank, stimulates debate on long-term challenges and opportunities that Scotland faces. During 2019-20, it produced a report into what schooling, education and learning could look like in 2030 and beyond.

One of the most exciting points in the report is affirmation that we do currently value attainment over all else in our system. The new system would “value achievement and not just attainment”. The report acknowledges that we currently use exams as currency to move through the system but this makes “learning too compartmentalised, less experiential and can limit post-school choices”.

The report suggests that to change this culture, we could undertake a review with employers and universities to identify an alternative currency based on the four capacities of CfE, and develop “metrics” for innovation, wellbeing, confidence, cooperation – qualities we value but which are difficult to measure. 

What would happen if we abandoned the exam system? Maybe this would actually allow for opportunities for greater experiential learning and teaching and wider choices.

Other key ideas in the report worth exploring:

  • Encourage teachers to be innovative, creative and risk-taking in their teaching.

  • Move away from building schools to creating genuine community learning hubs.

  • End the age-and-stage and one-size-fits-all approach to schooling and instead focus on learning.

  • Shift power, control and influence away from Scottish government and electoral cycles, and be more transparent in policymaking.

The size of Scotland should help provide a first-class education system, given the ease – in theory, at least – of communication, flexibility and responsiveness. However, our current system feels cluttered, centralised, compliant and conservative.

Yes, we have significant policy themes, such as empowerment and teacher agency, but these feel tokenistic, as power and influence remain in the “walled garden” of Scottish education.

Imagine a system that has new approaches to assessment and exams, where the focus is on pedagogy with genuine interdisciplinary approaches; a system that values learning as opposed to schooling; a system that values creativity and encourages strong voices from within.

Now that’s a future we could sign up to.

Isabelle Boyd, Neil McLennan, Robin Macpherson and George Gilchrist are educators in Scotland with a range of backgrounds at classroom, school leadership and local authority level

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Isabelle Boyd, Neil McLennan, Robin Macpherson and George Gilchrist

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