The official line on CfE is not the one teachers take

5th April 2013 at 01:00
Continually upbeat messages about the curriculum jar with views expressed by professionals

On 1 March 2013, Bill Maxwell, the chief executive of Education Scotland, was quoted in TESS on the subject of Curriculum for Excellence, saying: "The evidence we gather through inspections and through our ongoing dialogue with authorities, schools, colleges and individual teachers and lecturers shows that most are making good progress."

This assessment has been reinforced by good news inspection stories in the media - about schools with excellent HMI evaluations for their implementation of the new curriculum. However, this continually upbeat message about CfE jars with other views, particularly from within the teaching profession.

A recent EIS survey, for example, highlighted continuing anxiety about the curriculum. According to one respondent: "I believe that no one has any real grasp of what it is about. The more reassurances SQA and partners try to give, the more concerned and confused I have become."

So who do we believe? Is CfE the success story often claimed? Or are we witnessing what Walter Humes has described as implementation by spectacle? In other words, does the rhetoric of success mask an underlying failure to realise the lofty aspirations of the early CfE documents?

The simple answer is that we do not know for sure, in the absence of substantial funded research into the new curriculum. We can, however, draw strong inferences from the available research.

The EIS survey paints a picture of continued confusion about the purposes and nature of CfE; teachers are anxious about the new national qualifications, and critical of what is widely seen as poor guidance from the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

A survey conducted by Borders Council in its schools (TESS, 26 October 2012) highlighted some interesting points. This research was positive about schools that took a long-term and strategic view towards CfE and engaged in collegial curriculum development activity. These schools were, however, in the minority (about 10 per cent). More common was making CfE fit with existing practices - for example, schools that were "reinventing 5-14" or "hanging on like grim death to what had worked until someone came along to give them something that could stand in its place".

These snapshot surveys provide a mixed picture. It is clear that despite the obvious success stories, the official line - that CfE is proceeding well - seems overly optimistic. Moreover, they are backed up strongly by anecdotal evidence, as anyone who talks regularly with teachers will appreciate. So where do the problems lie? And, more importantly, how do we fix them?

Two research projects, undertaken by the University of Stirling between 2010 and 2012, offer some insights. The first is the well-publicised research carried out in 2010-11 within Highland Council; this comprised in-depth case study research in a single school cluster, followed by a survey of all the teachers in Highland (response rate approximately 30 per cent). The second is the ESRC-funded Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change project, within a second local authority; this intensive, ethnographic research took place over the course of a year in three schools.

The findings from the two projects are remarkably consistent, despite the different methodologies and locations.

- Teachers have largely welcomed the general directions signalled by CfE.

- There was a mismatch in many cases between the philosophy of CfE and teachers' implicit theories of learning and knowledge. This was accompanied by misunderstandings about the purposes of CfE, and how teaching methodologies might be adapted to realise these purposes.

- Commonly, and consistent with Stanford professor Larry Cuban's dictum that "schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools", CfE was being adapted to fit with existing practices, often following an audit approach.

- Many teachers felt disempowered, and in many cases did not even wish to be granted autonomy ("just tell us what to do"). However in one interesting case, a school with strongly developed relational structures, we saw considerable teacher confidence as they developed the curriculum, a well-developed strategic vision across the school and optimism about the potential of CfE to transform practice.

These findings suggest strongly that effective implementation of CfE is dependent on several things.

First, schools must make the time, and establish the processes and structures for teachers to make sense of the big ideas of CfE. Clarity of purpose is essential if schools are to develop practices that are fit for purpose. However, time and resources are major issues here, as is the working culture of many schools.

Second, we need to do more to remove barriers to successful implementation. These include quality improvement practices that continue to rely narrowly on measures of attainment, providing a disincentive to innovation.

Third, we need to establish clear processes for curriculum development (for example, collaborative professional enquiry, as advocated in the new GTCS professional standards), which draw substantively on research findings and break the cycle of answers only being sought from within schools.

And finally, we should emulate New Zealand, where a similar new curriculum has been largely welcomed by teachers. Their government funded an independent evaluation two years into the process, and then used the findings to make changes to the programme of implementation. It would be good to see a systematic programme of funded and independently conducted curriculum research in Scotland to inform future development.

Mark Priestley is professor of education and director of the curriculum and pedagogy research programme in the School of Education, University of Stirling. Project publications available at bit.lyX9GIcm.

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