Copied curriculum is a compliment

2nd April 2010 at 01:00

Amid the current uncertainty around Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) - calls for yet another delay, marches demanding more resources, the studied inability of a prominent academic on Newsnight Scotland to give a rational explanation of the new curriculum - one thing is true: England has been looking northwards at what we are doing . and clearly it likes what it sees.

For the first time since Margaret Thatcher's assault on the comprehensive system in the early 1980s, it would appear that the two countries have a similar vision of the curriculum.

A visit to the national curriculum website ( indicates that not only has the new framework in England incorporated many of the aims and principles of CfE, but, with the benefit of having looked at our documents, it has come up with some of the elements which are implicit in ours.

The aims are to produce young people who are successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens, terms which have become familiar to all of us in Scotland. Importantly, it states that the new curriculum is not just about raising attainment for all learners, but is about closing the gap between those who achieve and those who underachieve.

Poverty remains the single most important predictor of educational underachievement and it is crucial that any curriculum change must tackle its effects. While schools cannot do this alone, the concept of the "extended school", in which partnerships among agencies and organisations which have a stake in tackling disadvantage are formed, is an important one.

The national curriculum takes some of the principles of CfE and embeds them in the core of the new framework. Thus, while CfE, rightly, enshrines "depth" as an important principle, the national curriculum goes further and has the word "understanding" in all six of its new "areas of learning":

- mathematical understanding;

- scientific and technological understanding;

- understanding English, communication and languages;

- historical, geographical and social understanding;

- understanding the arts; and

- understanding physical development and health and well-being.

This is interesting since, in Scotland, a number of local authorities are engaged in a continuing professional development project based on the work of David Perkins from Harvard. He has long argued that we should put "understanding" at the heart of learning, but is only too aware that the effect of high-stakes examinations is to make understanding a luxury which we, apparently, cannot afford.

Perhaps the most positive element of the new curriculum in England is the prominence given to "learning and thinking skills". For the past 25 years or more, a number of key educationists have been banging the drum for "thinking skills". More recently, Tapestry, an organisation dedicated to promoting creativity in Scottish education, has brought to Scotland some of the most prominent advocates of thinking in education, from Jerome Bruner to Robert Fisher, from David Perkins to Reuven Feuerstein, from Art Costa to Tony Buzan.

In Scotland, thinking skills are absolutely implicit within the CfE experiences and outcomes. There is an argument, no doubt, that the whole curriculum provides contexts for thinking, but it might be helpful to teachers, and parents and carers, if we made the range of types of thinking for young people more explicit.

The English curriculum emphasises the need to look at the "whole child" and it is in this context it advocated "extended schools". While early years, primary and special needs schools seem able to educate the "while child" with success, it is still a challenge for our secondary schools, as it is in England.

So the challenges facing the education systems in Scotland and England may also be similar. Both new curricula have addressed the issue of raising achievement by building it into their core principles; in Scotland we have "challenge and enjoyment", while in England the curriculum is at "the heart of schools' strategies to raise achievement and improve outcomes for all learners". However, there are still those who argue that the very word "enjoyment" suggests dumbing down. I would contend that its pairing with "challenge" suggests the opposite.

Inter-disciplinary learning is proving to be divisive in both countries. The stance taken by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association is typical: inter-disciplinary learning is a slippery slope toward the disappearance of subject. Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. Work done on "rich tasks" as part of the New Basics curriculum in Queensland, Australia, suggests that, within inter-disciplinary approaches, it is imperative that the contribution of individual subjects is made explicit; this has the effect of strengthening the disciplines.

The final challenge may be pedagogy. Some have argued that achievement will be raised by subject specialists teaching didactically. But the work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam on formative assessment and David Perkins's Teaching for Understanding framework, offer a pedagogy based on solid research evidence, reputable theory and years of classroom experience.

Dialogue, a focus on understanding, ongoing, formative assessment and collaborative learning are the key features of this pedagogy. Over time, this will enable teachers to meet the needs of all their pupils, north and south of the border.

Brian Boyd is emeritus professor of education at the University of Strathclyde.

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