‘Medieval builders’ of CfE aim to reach enlightenment

8th July 2016 at 00:00
New delivery plan promises ‘clear and simple’ advice after teachers complain of labyrinthine complexity

Like Japanese knotweed clogging up suburban gardens, the documentation surrounding Curriculum for Excellence spread through schools at an alarming rate and risked suffocating all in its path.

Education secretary John Swinney has repeatedly acknowledged how unclear teachers are about what their priorities should be. So, when the government published its wide-ranging education “delivery plan” last week (bit.ly/ScotEduPlan), one main aim was to make “the whole CfE framework much clearer and simpler”.

As the plan puts it: “Too many documents and too much ‘guidance’ have accumulated as CfE has been implemented. We need clear, simple statements that give teachers confidence about what CfE does, and does not, expect of them.” And not before time, influential figures in Scottish education have suggested.

‘Waste of time and effort’

Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, criticised unclear guidance that had led to “inconsistent monitoring and tracking of pupil progress”. It had also confused teachers, who had tried to cover all bases by writing pupil reports “running to huge numbers of pages”.

Over the years, Mr Duncan said, CfE had generated a “prodigious number of words” because “like medieval builders, the architects of CfE drew and redrew plans as the project progressed, leading to massive expense in terms of teachers’ time and effort”.

“Who can forget the multiple, huge, green folders with their tens of thousands of words, or the posters they contained – detailing Es and Os [experiences and outcomes] in tiny letters?” asked Mr Duncan, who noted that the documents stretched along 10m of wall space when displayed.

Mike Corbett, an executive member of the NASUWT Scotland teaching union and an English teacher, bemoaned “page after page of ‘advice’, which doesn’t actually say anything”.The guide Building the Curriculum 3, for example, had “57 pages of endless repetition that could be contained in five pages”.

Mr Corbett recalled advice for secondary teachers that stated the obvious without adding any insight, such as “young people will progress at different rates and need different levels of support”.

He also highlighted some “unintentionally hilarious” illustrations in CfE documentation, including one that teachers had dubbed “the washing machine” (see image, above left).

“I know it’s supposed to let us know that the child is at the centre of everything, but since a colleague of mine said ‘It looks like a child at the bottom of a well’, I’ve been unable to think of anything else,” Mr Corbett said.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body the AHDS, said that the definitions and expectations of CfE had been “moving faster than is possible for schools and local authorities to embed”. He added that understanding of key issues had been changed – and even flipped on its head – at certain points.

For example, the new plan makes clear that CfE’s “significant aspects of learning” alone should be used for assessment, rather than the minutiae of all experiences and outcomes (see box, below left). However, at another stage, teachers were deemed to be focusing too much on significant aspects of learning at the expense of other experiences and outcomes.

“A simple, clear and settled articulation of expectations in these and other areas would be welcomed by many,” Mr Dempster said.

Relentless focus

In this week’s TESS, Ken Muir, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, compares the confusion in Scotland with the “uncomplicated” direction of Ontario’s education system (see pages 16-17).

When he visited the Canadian province, all teachers seemed able to share the education system’s “relentless focus on three easily understood priorities”, he recounts. These were: improving literacy; improving numeracy; and building public confidence in the education system.

“It really didn’t matter with whom I spoke – school principals, senior managers, class and support teachers, even parents – all could articulate clearly what they were striving to deliver,” Mr Muir writes.

While Scotland, too, distils education to three areas – literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing – “perhaps what is missing is the clarity given in Ontario”, he argues.


The ‘layers and dimensions’ of CfE

The landmark review of Curriculum for Excellence, published in December by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), raises concerns about whether the curriculum is comprehensible (bit.ly/CFE-OECD).

Such barriers to understanding might particularly affect “those who are not necessarily full-time educational professionals and yet who need to enjoy a deeper grasp of CfE than the headlines of [its] four capacities”, such as pupils, the report notes.

The review identifies the “complexity of the layers and dimensions” in CfE as follows:

Four capacities, covering 12 attributes and 24 capabilities.

Five levels, from early to senior, including four covered by the heading of “broad general education”.

Seven principles, six entitlements and 10 aims.

Eight curriculum areas and three interdisciplinary areas.

1,820 experience and outcome statements (1,488 in the eight curriculum areas and 332 in the three interdisciplinary areas).

Four contexts for learning.

Significant aspects of learning.

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