Curriculum journey has reached a key junction

25th January 2013 at 00:00
A major milestone for CfE offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on how far this vital reform has come

Curriculum for Excellence, the most significant and comprehensive programme of curricular and pedagogical reform in a generation, will achieve another major milestone in 2013: the first cohort of young people who have experienced it through every stage of their educational journey will complete the first two major phases of their education: early education and broad general education.

As they enter the final phase of the CfE journey, the current S3 pupils become the first cohort to benefit from the new senior phase, which the profession has been working hard to prepare. Alongside that key milestone, there will be other important aspects of CfE that will reach new levels of maturity this year, including changes to new, improved practice at all levels from early years through primary and secondary schooling, and in community learning, colleges and all post-16 learning contexts.

The fact that we are just reaching this milestone now highlights the length of time over which change on this scale takes place. Education system reform can easily take a decade or more, and it is easy to lose sight of the original rationale for change over such an extended timescale. It is all the more important, therefore, to remind ourselves occasionally of some of the big issues which CfE was introduced to address, and the long-term benefits that the whole programme was intended to achieve.

One of the big ideas was to address perceived weaknesses at transition points, hence the 3-18 span of the CfE framework and the way in which it deliberately crosses sectoral boundaries in all three of its major phases. Similarly, the focus on more continuous profiling and assessment throughout a learner's journey from pre-school to post-school will make that journey smoother, more progressive, more personalised and more closely matched to individual learners' needs.

"De-cluttering" the curriculum was another big idea, reversing a trend towards excessive national prescription of curriculum content. This meant moving to an approach that concentrates on defining expected learner outcomes and experiences at key stages, while giving educational professionals greater autonomy in applying their judgement to design appropriate learning experiences; being "looser" in defining the content and delivery of the curriculum while being "tighter" in defining the outcomes which we expect learners to achieve.

CfE also aimed to reverse a trend towards teaching curriculum areas and their sub-elements in too atomistic a way, by highlighting the potential of interdisciplinary learning opportunities alongside activities that focus on single curriculum strands.

Another issue which drove its design was concern that S1S2 had become a relatively "fallow" period in the curriculum, almost as if it was a less serious stage in which pupils "tried out" areas of study before things became "serious" after making subject choices towards the end of S2. CfE promotes a more balanced secondary experience, with the first three years being as purposeful and stimulating as the second three, by providing a framework for more rich, flexible, and challenging programmes, with better progression on a broader front, and for a year longer than before.

One further "big issue" is the need identified for a richer range of better-paced, more flexible pathways towards formal, externally accredited qualifications as pupils progress into the senior phase of education. The aim is to provide more space for deeper and richer learning, thereby leading to higher levels of achievement through new-style, more outcome-based qualifications and courses (as now being rolled out by the SQA), complemented by broader learning experiences addressing all four CfE capacities.

The "two-term dash to Higher" has long been acknowledged as an undesirable feature of our system. The new senior phase is opening up scope to address that head-on, while also using new, flexible senior-phase models to provide richer, more coherent pathways for learners at all levels, with equal care being paid to meeting the needs of those who will not progress to higher education and to those who will.

I can track back the development of CfE over a long-term personal involvement, from membership of the original curriculum review group which reported in 2004, through serving on the CfE management board and related groups, to now having the privilege of chairing the CfE implementation group. I have seen the theory take practical form through impressive partnership working.

I also gained a valuable perspective from working outwith Scotland for a period. Looking back from the outside impressed upon me some of CfE's most precious assets, which we should never underestimate: the coherence of our integrated framework from early years to post-school; the clear commitment to a broad, progressive view of the purposes of education encapsulated in the four capacities; and the degree of national consensus that has been maintained in relation to CfE's fundamentals throughout the reform programme.

We should celebrate these assets, which relatively few national education systems enjoy. As they say, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

CfE is fundamentally about taking an educational model which had evolved to meet 20th-century needs and replacing it with a new coherent and integrated framework fit to meet the needs of 21st-century learners. In 2013, we can take the realisation of that ambition another important step forward. Let's grasp that opportunity with creativity and enthusiasm but keep our eyes on the "big picture" as we do so.

Dr Bill Maxwell is chief executive of Education Scotland, the national education improvement agency, and chairs the Curriculum for Excellence implementation group.

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