Curriculum harks back to 1904

8th January 2010 at 00:00
Architects of CfE accused of `historical amnesia' by Scotland's leading education researchers

The Curriculum for Excellence is constrictive, shallow, vague, incoherent, without a sense of history, and - crucially - little different from its unloved predecessor.

That is the damning verdict from two of Scotland's leading education researchers in a report which will alarm a government struggling to maintain teachers' enthusiasm for the reform.

Far from heralding a new dawn in Scottish education, Mark Priestley and Walter Humes argue, Curriculum for Excellence resembles English guidelines published more than 100 years ago.

Their report, which is to be published in the Oxford Review of Education shortly, is unremitting in its criticism.

Stirling University's Dr Priestley - an expert in curriculum change - and Professor Humes, of the University of the West of Scotland, recall a time when CfE looked capable of breaking "the constraining mould of Scottish education", with its focus on what young people could do and become.

"We regret that later developments in CfE have constrained this aspiration, potentially reducing the freedom and creativity of teachers and learners, and rendering classrooms predictable, limited and uncreative," they state.

They believe the emphasis on "outcomes" will ensure a continuation of the 5-14 curriculum: "a curriculum framed as objectives, even when considerable efforts have been made to make the outcomes less prescriptive, will always have the potential to narrow down the educative process".

The report adds: "It is difficult to see how these outcomes will be used differently to those of 5-14, which came to be primarily utilised for assessment purposes."

Learners' autonomy and critical thinking will become marginalised, while the basic structures of quality improvement - such as local authorities' use of statistics and HMIE inspections - will remain central. Schools, therefore, will find themselves under continued pressure to "teach to the test".

The consultation document for the draft outcomes and experiences underlined that these were "not designed as assessment criteria". This was hard to reconcile with a later statement that: "They should allow for evaluation."

The decision to keep a central 5-14 principle - outcomes organised into sequential levels - has resulted in a curriculum which is "incoherent structurally and which contains epistemological and pragmatic contradictions". There are also "multiple instances" where progression between levels is "haphazard", which the researchers maintain is a fundamental problem of outcomes organised into levels.

The reform's antecedents, in fact, pre-date even 5-14: a table demonstrates the close resemblance between CfE's subject areas and those used for the English curriculum in 1904.

The researchers believe inherent contradictions will "ultimately water down" CfE's impact, with maintenance of the status quo a likely result in many schools. What reform demands in practice is "arguably inimical" to its four "capacities".

They are concerned too, that the capacities have become "a kind of mantra in Scottish education", but that there has been unwillingness from policy- makers to explore their "deeper, underlying purposes".

Documents are "littered" with generalised references to skills development and active learning, but there is "little specific detailed guidance" on suitable approaches to teaching, such as co-operative learning or inter- disciplinary timetabling.

The architects of CfE are found to have shown "historical amnesia and lack of theoretical sophistication". Dr Priestley and Professor Humes believe this might be explained by a Scottish tendency to prefer pragmatic approaches, exemplified in "the inspectorate's celebration of `best practice' as the most appropriate means of effecting improvement".

They plead for future development to be "grounded in the rich vein of curriculum theory outlined in this paper".

Some statements in CfE documents suggest the "inculcation of dominant cultural mores", rather than development of values through scrutiny of existing ways of thinking, "which would be more appropriate in a democratic, multi-cultural society". This might be attributable to Scottish educational policy's traditional drive for consensus, rather than "too much diversity of provision".

Education Secretary Michael Russell insisted CfE was "significantly different in scope and ambition" to 5-14. He said: "Ambitious change will always lead to differing opinions and we welcome healthy debate on Curriculum for Excellence. However, many teachers are telling us that they appreciate the opportunity to creatively use their professional skills, and many schools across Scotland are already implementing Curriculum for Excellence in innovative ways."

What's in a name?

The new curriculum changed its name in March, 2007 when, almost unnoticed, the "A" was dropped from "A Curriculum for Excellence" by the management board leading the reform.

A Scottish Government spokesman told The TESS the move was undertaken "to ensure consistency" as "a number of different acronyms had slipped into casual usage".

ACfE, CfE, ACE and C for E appear to have been the most common of the acronyms which entered into common parlance. "There were no cost implications as it was adopted in advance of a number of major printed publications. Furthermore, much published material is internet-based," he said.

To date, the Scottish Government has provided local authorities with pound;17.8 million to prepare for Curriculum for Excellence, including pound;4m for 100 extra teachers to support its implementation.

- The Education Secretary has announced an extra in-service day on Curriculum for Excellence for teachers throughout Scotland focusing on assessment and quality assurance. It will take place in the summer term, with local authorities deciding themselves when to fit it into their calendar.

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