Criticism of CfE gets international audience

29th May 2015 at 01:00
National academy complains to OECD of `weaknesses' in reforms

Scotland's national academy has hit out at the "profound weaknesses" in how the country's new curriculum was introduced, ahead of a major international review of the reforms.

On Monday, education experts from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - the organisation behind the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) league tables - are due to arrive in Scotland to evaluate the implementation and impact of Curriculum for Excellence.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) was invited by the Scottish government to provide "advice and support" to the OECD team. But TESS can reveal that the society has snubbed the government's offer to make it an official partner in the review, arguing that participation would not be "compatible with our status as an independent charity".

Instead, the society has taken the unusual of step of submitting its own highly critical views directly to the OECD, rather than contributing to the main body of evidence being compiled by CfE's management board, along with teaching unions and other stakeholders.

In the RSE's written submission to the review, seen exclusively by TESS and due to be published online today, the body criticises the implementation of the new curriculum and attacks the government for cutting funding for education research.

`Not good enough'

The move is another blow to the Scottish government, which has come under intense pressure in recent weeks over its record on education.

Attacks from opposition MSPs led first minister Nicola Sturgeon, pictured right, to admit that exam results were "not good enough" and that recent evidence suggesting standards of literacy and numeracy were falling was "unacceptable". Last week she revealed that the Scottish government was considering introducing testing of primary pupils to address the "lack of data" on their performance.

The RSE's written submission to the OECD argues that, when implementing the new curriculum, the Scottish government failed to undertake pilot studies, collect baseline data or make early plans for the kind of assessment that would show whether the reforms were working. There was widespread support for the ideas underpinning the changes, it says, but "marked dissatisfaction" about the "implementation and resourcing of reforms".

The submission continues: "We would be pleased to discuss what we regard as profound weaknesses in the strategic thinking and with the implementation of CfE and the new National qualifications".

The RSE also accuses the Scottish government of failing to maintain "the former high quality of empirical research into Scottish education" by cutting funding.

It adds: "An important principle in innovative developments recognises that independent research plays a central role in promoting excellence."

To "avoid similar pitfalls", it calls for the OECD to recommend that "the Scottish government undertakes and facilitates rational, coherent and progressive strategies for the implementation of educational change".

Creating consensus

But former education director Bruce Robertson, a member of the team charged with coordinating the government's submission to the OECD review team, insisted that Scotland had "a good story to tell".

"It is important to remember that we do not implement curricular change in Scotland through legislation, but through consensus," he said. "Teachers and schools have put their shoulder to the wheel and there is some brilliant work going on. The Scottish government invited the OECD in so we could gain from their international expertise, find out how well they think we are doing and benefit from any recommendations they have for the future."

The four-strong team of reviewers will be headed by David Istance, who leads the OECD's work on innovative learning environments. He will be joined by Andy Hargreaves from Boston College in the US, Helen Timperley from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Maria Huerta, an analyst on the organisation's education and social progress team.

Mr Istance told TESS: "What the review will do will be to give us as clear a picture as possible of the way in which Curriculum for Excellence is working, how it has been designed and is being implemented. We will also look at the development in light of practice in other countries.

"One advantage of the review is that it is international. On the basis of that, we will come to a variety of different ideas about how it is working and what might be done in the future."

Speaking at the University of Glasgow earlier this month, education secretary Angela Constance said the review would provide "valuable, independent evidence on how well Curriculum for Excellence is performing".

She added: "It will draw on the experience of other countries - including those who have undergone major curricular reform. We can only benefit from such expertise."

In a paper published on its website, the RSE said: "[We] welcomed the invitation from the Scottish government to participate in the review of the Curriculum for Excellence being commissioned from OECD. We have been actively seeking to define our contribution.

"Unfortunately, none of the standard options available to the Scottish government to create a formal arrangement, which would define respective roles and obligations, appears compatible with our status as an independent charity and national academy. The RSE is therefore not able to participate at the level originally intended."

Performance review

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development review was announced by former education secretary Michael Russell at the Scottish Learning Festival two years ago.

It was proposed in response to growing calls for an independent evaluation of the reform from Scottish academics, including Sally Brown, convener of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's education committee, and the late David Raffe, professor of sociology of education at the University of Edinburgh.

The final version of the report is expected to be published in December this year.

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