To close the gap, focus on teachers, not curricula

29th July 2016 at 00:00
Instead of getting bogged down in confusing ‘clarifications’ to CfE reforms, schools must rely on staff and research-backed pedagogy to boost achievement

Coming from New Zealand – a country that has gone through two phases of developing a modern national curriculum over 15-plus years – I am more than used to the angst and debate that forms around this sort of change. I’m less accustomed, however, to the plethora of guidance documents that define, redefine and even confuse the agenda in Scotland, often arising from official reactions to renewed criticism and controversy.

Academics like Professor Mark Priestley from the University of Stirling make very relevant critiques of confused starting points, underlining that the best type of curriculum is likely to come from considering the attributes and capabilities outlined in Scotland’s “four capacities” (a process-driven curriculum), rather than a content-driven agenda based on the “experiences and outcomes” that are outlined in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

The starting point for such a process-led agenda, as Priestley writes in one of his blogs (, could be “not about the nature of knowledge, transmission of cultural values or a statement of the ends to be achieved but about a much more idealistic conception – that of outcomes relating to the nature of the child themselves and their development as a human being”.

Questionable impact

There are plenty of signs that education in Scotland is changing and that opportunities for learners at many levels are vastly increased by a wider vision. And it may be that the curriculum ultimately leads to real improvement in attainment and progression. Which brings me to the main thrust of my argument: what evidence do we have that a national curriculum improves a country’s attainment and achievement?

The answer is none really, according to a conversation I had several years ago with Professor John Hattie – the man responsible for the huge Visible Learning project that analysed the effectiveness of thousands of teaching strategies around the world. There is no evidence from longitudinal studies, it appears, of any impact on attainment from a new national curriculum. In fact, Hattie sees such concerns around national curricula as part of the politics of distraction in education, driven as they often are by imperatives relating to labour markets and competitiveness, not an educational philosophy.

It would appear that research is vital as a country moves to implement a national education curriculum strategy it deems capable of driving up children’s attainment and life chances. Does a focus on a seemingly mixed approach to development – as a content- or process-based curriculum – matter in improving learning and close the attainment gap?

Will Education Scotland’s current focus on curriculum rationale, design and programmes have an impact on learners and how will we know? Does the reported lack of teacher knowledge around how to develop the Scottish curriculum make it less likely that achievement and attainment will improve? How useful is it for Education Scotland to be both the master and servant of change? And how does individual and group ideology operate across such systems?

Attainment has, as national qualifications data shows, been improving over the period that CfE has been implemented, as has the rate of school-leavers going on to “positive destinations”. If the national curriculum had led to such improvements, then it wouldn’t be something to deride. However, there is research evidence from my own country about underlying cohort stability across a 30-year period that could be problematic when examination systems seemingly suffer from grade inflation over time.

Adding value

The other problem is that schools get smart about how to increase things like tariff points, seemingly adding value and increasing attainment without having real progression for learners. A better measure of how well CfE was doing might be to look at underlying progression from a baseline. Studies using standardised tests to examine progress in different countries and calculate an effect size – which can indicate how well an educational intervention works – have produced interesting and consistent results.

Across a number of Western education systems, a typical effect size has been found. If this is agreed to be an average year’s progress in literacy and numeracy, is that something we should be checking in the Scottish context? And could similar progress be seen in other aspects of the curriculum? Many local authorities already have their own standardised data that could be used in this way, and the proposed national testing data could also be used to calculate an average effect size to support improvement.

Such data needs to be accompanied by real discussion about what this tells us about the national picture, and could be part of building up intelligence of what is happening in primary schools and across the broad secondary phase. Such work also helps to verify that standards are set at the right levels through moderation processes.

However, schools and authorities should be looking to gain much greater effect-size values across cohorts, starting with a strong focus on teachers and pedagogy rather than curriculum. Current educational research provides an opportunity to think about how to use data to drive system change through better interventions and a focus on pedagogies. Doing the same things in the same old ways – regardless of a new curriculum – will probably not close the gap.

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