Whether CfE succeeds or sinks is ultimately up to you

27th April 2012 at 01:00
If teachers realise and fulfil the curriculum's fundamental purposes, then children will benefit and it will have worked

So what?' is a rather infuriating but nonetheless powerful question in every inspector's briefcase. It is also a question that we all need to ask and answer if we are to maintain our focus on what really matters. The latest flurry of Curriculum for Excellence soul-searching and point- scoring has led me to ask the somewhat heretical "so what?" question about CfE. What difference would it make to Scotland's young people, now and in the future, if CfE had never existed?

My unease does not stem from the current understandable angst about qualifications. Legitimate concern about changes to qualifications was always going to be a hurdle that CfE would have to surmount. Nor is it a reflection of the recent evidence from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. The improvements in numeracy in primary are welcome and encouraging, but our ability to sustain such improvement into secondary remains elusive.

It is too early to be sure about the success or failure of CfE in countering the longstanding weaknesses in literacy and numeracy that have blighted Scottish education for far too long. Nor does my sense of unease even relate to the limited ambition which leads to the view that CfE has already been successfully "implemented" in some schools.

All of these issues and more are simply a reflection of a more fundamental worry that we are in danger of missing the point. The long-term risk to CfE relates to a failure to focus on its underlying rationale rather than any perceived structural shortcomings. It is the realisation of its fundamental purposes which will be the measure of its ultimate success or failure.

The notion of our young people as educated Scots lies at the heart of what CfE is meant to achieve and that requires a deep understanding of the "why" of CfE as much as the "what" or the "how".

The four capacities have proved powerful indicators of where we want to get to but they are all too easily reduced to little more than slogans. Putting the capacities into practice requires interpretation and that interpretation will reflect underlying values and assumptions about the purposes of education and schooling in the 21st century. If we simply graft CfE on to existing assumptions, then it is hardly surprising that concerns emerge about implementation problems or risks to standards as hitherto defined.

The case for CfE, therefore, needs to be stated and restated, lest we lose the ambition which characterised its early stages and which is still evident despite current noise and misgivings. The success of CfE will not lie simply in its components being implemented; that is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the realisation of its full potential. We must maintain a relentless focus on where we need to get to, not simply on the steps along the way.

CfE will have succeeded if our schools are playing their full part in defeating the corrosive and dispiriting effects of disadvantage which limit the life chances of so many of our citizens. That will require the kind of stimulating and imaginative teaching that lies at the heart of CfE. Of course, schools cannot fully overcome the effects of disadvantage on their own. However, if we are to build the attributes and capabilities of the four capacities across the board, we can and should continue to develop joint working with the full range of colleagues who support families and to engage purposefully with parentscarers themselves.

CfE will have succeeded if all of our young people leave school with the kind of broad base of knowledge, skills and dispositions that will enable them to thrive in the 21st century and to contribute to the well-being of their communities. That means raising standards across the board and engaging many more young people in the kind of difficult learning that, for example, currently leads so many to opt out of maths, science and modern languages.

The concept of a broad general education is both liberating and challenging. It is about establishing the foundations of lifelong learning. It asks us to believe that we are capable of fostering and sustaining throughout education the kind of curiosity which is so evident in the early years of life. Success in teaching is best reflected in a young person's desire to learn and willingness to engage with difficult ideas and to master new skills for their own sake and not simply as a response to the instrumental pressures of tests, examinations and qualifications.

And CfE will have succeeded if Scottish teachers themselves feel willing and able to engage with the difficult task of shaping and reshaping the curriculum in ways which continue to match the needs of their pupils with 21st-century living and working. Success will only come through the efforts of a skilled, confident and well-supported teaching profession.

It is not surprising that the demands of a job as complex and exacting as teaching force hard questions about feasibility and demands for greater clarity. We do not "do" philosophy very well in schools. Indeed, we often pride ourselves on our hard-nosed approach to the difficult task of steering generations of young people through to adulthood.

However, it is the alignment of values across the education community and civic Scotland that will sustain our commitment and achieve the kind of lasting success that our young people deserve and that is what CfE is really about. We are, after all, teaching Scotland's future.

Graham Donaldson, Professor of education

Graham Donaldson is the former senior chief inspector of education and author of Teaching Scotland's Future.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today