Why the OECD review needs to be taken seriously

Long-held assumptions about how to regulate Scottish education will be ‘a hard nut to crack’, warn experts

Mark Priestley, Emily Blackmore, Nicola Carse, Valerie Drew, Khadija Mohammed

Schools in Scotland: OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence must be taken seriously, say five teachers and academics

The long-awaited Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development review of Scotland’s curriculum marks a watershed moment in Scottish education. Arriving in the wake of the pandemic, which has already disrupted both educational thinking and practices, the review offers a critique of the Scottish curriculum, as well as some practical advice for dealing with the issues it raises. As such, the OECD review offers an opportunity to foster the sorts of changes envisaged by Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) but never fully realised.

The review undoubtedly contains omissions. For example, it is relatively silent on issues such as community learning and development, early years, university admissions policies and education for citizenship in an ethnically diverse society, all of which have a bearing on the development of a 3-18 curriculum. Nevertheless, there is much to commend in its pages.


Tes Scotland's coverage of the OECD report on Curriculum for Excellence:

The main messages: OECD review paves way for qualifications overhaul

The government response: SQA to be replaced, education secretary reveals

On testing in primary: Replace standardised tests with sample survey

On secondary assessment: How should Scotland change its exams?

On teacher workload: Reduce contact time to realise curriculum goals


For instance, the review repeatedly criticises what the authors see as a lack of a long-term strategic vision for developing CfE, a "somewhat ad hoc approach to CfE implementation and review". It points to the deleterious effects on the wider school system of a senior phase that is misaligned with the goals and vision of CfE, including a backwash effect on curriculum making in the secondary Broad General Education (BGE) phase, and instrumental, exam-driven teaching in the senior phase. The review is critical of the confusing multitude of policies and documentation, which have rendered CfE complex to understand and enact. The review calls for additional clarity in the roles and functions of agencies, and responsibilities within the system. It notes the tension between a curriculum premised on local design by practitioners and inadequate non-contact time and support mechanisms to fulfil that role.

OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence 'is a great opportunity'

In our collective view, the review is accurate in its analysis and deserves to be taken seriously and read carefully by all stakeholders in Scottish education. This will inevitably involve a significant cultural change to the governance of Scottish education, which is traditionally hierarchical and centralised. It requires a shift to a system based on clear principles of subsidiarity; one that values and trusts its practitioners, and that invests in developing their capacity; and that is set up to facilitate and enhance teacher agency, rather than disabling its professionals through blunt accountability mechanisms.

So where next? It is clear that we need to develop a systemic view of curriculum-making, identifying the ways in which different parts of the system can support each other. A necessary first step is the establishment of the proposed specialist curriculum agency. This agency needs to be established with clear responsibilities and roles that are distinct from other agencies, avoiding the current duplication of functions identified by the OECD. In our view, it should have responsibility for developing operational curriculum frameworks, establishing appropriate infrastructure and systems for supporting practice, as well as evaluation and review.

We offer a major caveat here – curriculum-making is a field requiring specialist expertise, and the new agency cannot simply be a rebranded Education Scotland or Scottish Qualifications Authority. The OECD has quite rightly been critical of the tendency for senior roles in national agencies to be the preserve of a small pool of people, often transitioning between organisations, arguably without the specialist knowledge required. Scotland should look overseas for inspiration to countries that already have specialist curriculum agencies, and seek to develop the expert knowledge required for senior roles in the new agency.

An early and crucial task for the new agency will be to review the current curriculum. The attributes and capabilities of the four capacities would benefit from being updated. More essential is a major refresh of the core documentation, and we endorse the OECD’s view that this should comprise a single curriculum framework document, as is the norm in many countries. This refresh needs to go beyond a retailoring of the message; the OECD has emphasised that the Scottish curriculum needs to place a more explicit emphasis on so-called "21st century knowledge" – the systematic development of concepts required for living in a modern complex world. In our view, this requires a reworking of the structure of the curriculum, jettisoning the current structure of outcomes/benchmarks levels in favour of a Big Ideas conceptual framework that emphasises the importance of developing knowledge, skills and attributes from 3-18.

Qualifications reform will be another huge but necessary task. In this case, we await the August publication of a supporting review from the OECD, as this will provide further clarity about future directions. Such reform must involve reducing the tyranny of the exam as the dominant form of assessment, moving to a mixed economy of different assessment approaches, including continuous assessment – as is commonplace in other countries and the university sector. We also see the need to question the current three-tier approach – the ladder of qualifications with its two-term dashes – which contributes so greatly to the curricular and pedagogical backwash identified above. Moreover, this is an opportunity to really integrate areas such as careers education and the constellation of vocational and work-based pathways into something more coherent and relevant across the student population.

Of course, curriculum-making involves much more than the production of coherent policy. We also need to create the conditions to facilitate the successful enactment of these frameworks into meaningful practice in schools and colleges. This requires the development of effective networks that are embedded in the work of local curriculum makers, rather than top-down approaches that tell practitioners what to do. The Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) have promise here but, as noted by the OECD, have not developed this potential. In our view, this will require a repurposing of the RICs, so that their function is predominantly about supporting and connecting practitioners, including those who are not teachers (eg, CLD). It will require additional resources, particularly for freeing up the time that is needed, and a recognition that curriculum-making, if it is to be effective, requires time outside of the classroom to collaborate, plan, develop and evaluate practice.

Finally, we wish to draw attention to other issues that will need to be considered. First, do we have the right sort of teachers? Do we, for example, need to start educating (through ITE) and accrediting teachers in non-traditional specialist areas, such as social studies? Specialist teachers who can teach across the primary-secondary transition? Second, how do we build the independent research capacity and evidence base to support curriculum-making? And how do we facilitate partnerships between university researchers and schools for both professional learning and curriculum development? These activities require funding, which is currently not easily available. Third, what action is needed to ensure that university admissions policies do not drive the senior school curriculum in our more academically inclined schools?

The OECD review opens up all sorts of opportunities, but it comes with significant challenges. These are partly structural questions, which can be addressed through designing new systems, roles and agencies. But they are also cultural, as they go to the heart of long-held assumptions about how to regulate education in Scotland. This is a harder nut to crack. We believe that the system is ready for this challenge, but it will require a refreshed approach to system leadership. Time will tell if Scotland is up to the task.

This article represents the collective views of a group comprising education academics, a student teacher (recently a secondary school student) and practitioners from a range of contexts – community learning and development, further education, schools and work-based learning.

Mark Priestley is professor of education in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling, and lead editor of the Curriculum Journal

Emily Blackmore is a second-year student teacher at the University of Stirling

Nicola Carse is the deputy head of the Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Health Sciences, the Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh

Valerie Drew is an honorary associate professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Khadija Mohammed is a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Social Sciences, University of the West of Scotland

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Mark Priestley, Emily Blackmore, Nicola Carse, Valerie Drew, Khadija Mohammed

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