It is said that one winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, when asked if he could explain why he had won in 25 words or fewer, replied: “If I could explain it in fewer than 25 words, it wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize!’’ Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), too, has been hard to sum up pithily. And that long-running complaint has become particularly topical again as Wales embarks on a similar journey, using some waymarks of CfE to guide it.
I have survived many initiatives designed to improve the educational outcomes of our children. The memory of the clarity of qualifications in the past engenders a sense of professional nostalgia that contrasts favourably with CfE, which has delivered thousands of pages of labyrinthine advice in green folders and on unnavigable websites.
It is important to be reminded that the central outcomes sought by the CfE review group in 2004 included simplified assessment and qualifications, greater choice, more skills and space in the curriculum for in-depth work and broader achievement. These outcomes were to be supported by decluttering the curriculum and by promising more teacher freedom and agency in curriculum development. I would advise my Welsh colleagues to be sceptical in this area – as the capacity of the system to live up to these pledges can be best described as not proven.
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Curriculum for Excellence: What is it and why do the Welsh love it?
News editor's take: We can admire the ideals of CfE even if we rue the reality
Former education director's take: ‘Let's reignite the passion in Scottish education’
Has CfE created the promised space and time to think deeper and have greater choice and opportunity? In recent months, the work of Professor Mark Priestley would imply not and would, worryingly, point out that curricular restrictions apply more to deprived areas than our more salubrious enclaves. This has led to furious activity at all levels to “close the poverty-related attainment gap” with money that curiously matches the cuts previously taken from schools. The impact on teacher workload has been profound and has damaged health and the ability of the system to retain teachers.
Professors Walter Humes and Lindsay Paterson have both pointed out that CfE data has been sparse. General Teaching Council for Scotland standards on engagement with research exhort teachers to question the efficacy of their practice, yet this principle does not seem to apply to national policymakers or Education Scotland, our curriculum development and inspection body, who get to mark their own homework.
In terms of academic progress, Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) seems to be the only continuous data thread during the CfE period, which has described Scotland as “average” but “declining” between 2006 and 2015 – a period that coincides with CfE. A reasonable assumption could be that an independent review of CFE is required. The EduMod programme at the Edinburgh Fringe this August seems to be one of the only forums truly considering whether CfE is working and what our next steps as a nation should be.
Using international comparisons is problematic, of course, but comparative evidence questions the academic impact of CfE. We need more research, and Scottish teachers are demonstrating individual and collective leadership as they fill this vacuum by attending TeachMeets, Pedagoo, ResearchEd and, most recently, EduMod CfE 2.0 discussions. Teachers should be encouraged to challenge the narrative around CfE.
Finally, some advice to teachers in Wales. Firstly, ask for expert teams to create and deliver coherent courses in your subjects. Otherwise, you will be writing and re-writing courses year after year to meet the ever-shifting demands of your leaders when things don’t go as well as expected. Secondly, demand a simple assessment system that is not heavily dependent on internal assessment – because this has been a massive headache in Scotland.
Paul Cochrane is a chemistry teacher in Scotland and contributes to various forums, including TeachMeet, Pedagoo and EduMod