Pupils are underachieving, major study on CfE warns

18th December 2015 at 00:00
Many secondary children feel disengaged and isolated, OECD report finds

A landmark report on Curriculum for Excellence has identified serious concerns about the reform’s implementation, and the rising numbers of secondary pupils who feel isolated and underachieve.

The overall ambition of CfE is praised in the first major independent review of the curriculum, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and published this week.

It finds “a great deal to be positive about”, including “engaged and professional” teachers and “enthusiastic and motivated” pupils who mostly have positive attitudes about school.

But the success of the reform hangs in the balance, with the review reporting that a large minority of schools in Scotland offer a barely acceptable standard of education. It warns of “particular challenges confronting secondary schools”, where the number of pupils who enjoy school drops sharply and is lower than in many countries: 37 per cent of 11-year-olds liked school a lot in 2014, compared with only 12 per cent of 15-year-olds.

More adolescents reported feeling left out at school in 2012 than in 2003 and the perception of being supported by teachers was found to be “substantially lower” among secondary pupils than in primaries.

The report, based on existing data and visits by OECD officials to Scotland this year, finds there are more secondary pupils recording “low achievement against expected levels” than previously. And the gap between the achievements of pupils from wealthy and poor areas in both numeracy and reading widens as they grow older.

The thinking behind Scotland’s current curriculum began in 2002, although implementation did not start until 2010. The aim was to create a curriculum with a focus on developing skills so that pupils would be better prepared for work and better able to apply their knowledge.

‘Below acceptable standards’

Primary schools have made more progress than secondaries with the whole-school, project-based approaches espoused by CfE, the review finds. The OECD proposes a new project for secondary schools akin to the Scottish Attainment Challenge, which is providing millions of pounds to primaries in an effort to bridge Scotland’s notoriously stubborn attainment gap. This would attempt to drive innovative approaches to learning at secondary schools in deprived areas.

The review team is also concerned that inspection reports show as many as a third of schools are “performing only just at or even below acceptable standards” and that too many teachers remain unclear about what should be assessed in relation to CfE’s “experiences and outcomes”. The report advises simplifying inspections and assessment.

And while CfE’s principles are “widely accepted”, the OECD review finds that its implementation in both primaries and secondaries is too centralised and is happening at different speeds around Scotland.

The report states that “the centre of gravity needs to shift towards schools” if the reform programme is to realise its ambition of a more personalised approach to education that simultaneously drive up standards.

“However visionary any curriculum is in principle, this makes little difference unless it is successfully implemented in practice,” the report warns. “Many of the best curriculum designs have failed in practice to spread beyond a few innovative sites or have been badly implemented with only superficial fidelity to the original philosophy.”

Progress on drink and drugs

More positively, a key aim of CfE was to place a stronger focus on pupil wellbeing, and the review notes figures showing a decline in risky behaviour among young people in Scotland. The proportion of 15-year-olds drinking alcohol weekly dropped from 43 per cent to 14 per cent between 2002 and 2014, for example – with many pupils pointing to advice from school on smoking, alcohol and drugs.

The review also recognises Scotland’s good record on inclusion. The frequent mixing of pupils from different backgrounds in school places it in a small band of countries including Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Montserrat Gomendio, deputy education and skills director at the OECD, said: “We applaud Scotland for having the foresight and patience to put such an ambitious reform as Curriculum for Excellence in place. We hope that our OECD review will help ensure that it will live up to its full potential and realise excellence and equity right across Scotland.”

First minister Nicola Sturgeon said there was “much positive praise” in the report and the government “broadly” accepted the recommendations. But she added that “we need to do more to ensure that our education system delivers for every child”.


Take pride in CfE, says one OECD reviewer

Scotland is rightly proud of Curriculum for Excellence. It is innovative and humanistic. It embraces learning outdoors as well as inside the school. In all schools the OECD team visited, it saw how CfE was producing confident and successful Scottish learners.

CfE differs from many reforms that have killed classroom creativity and teacher initiative with standardisation and school-against-school competition. It has courageously pursued its own direction of travel and engaged the whole profession in implementation.

Now is the time for Scotland to become a world leader through this bold curriculum that concentrates on developing students who can participate in a dynamic economy and an inclusive and equitable society.

But the country must take three big steps forward:

1. Develop a CfE narrative that is as persuasive to the public as it is to the profession, with more practical examples.

2. Demonstrate how CfE is having an impact and making progress. Alongside the professional judgement of inspectors and others, procure independent research and develop specific, new metrics that match CfE’s goals.

3. Deepen and accelerate existing professional collaboration. Local authorities are already intensifying mutual assistance to secure equity of outcomes. Professional associations could also assume stronger national leadership in school-to-school improvement.

CfE is impressively bold. It also needs to be more specific. Most other countries are either one or the other. Can Scotland show how to be both?

Andy Hargreaves is Brennan Chair at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, and was part of the OECD’s review team in Scotland. The views expressed here are his own

‘The report is flawed – it doesn’t look beyond age 15’

The authors offer a useful external perspective but their focus has been too narrow to pick up some important issues. They report positive trends in the attitudes and attainments of pupils; broadly inclusive schooling; reductions in risky and negative behaviour; and increases in positive destinations beyond school.

They also raise concerns, particularly in relation to secondary schooling where too many pupils disengage, and the attainment gap between the most and least affluent increases.

They offer solutions: for example, they recommend a redefinition of Curriculum for Excellence and its assessment, and argue for local-level leadership to guide the implementation of the next phase of improvement.

But, overall, their conclusions are weakened by a restricted remit. They say nothing, for example, about squeezed local authority budgets. Moreover, the report stops at age 15, although compulsory schooling ends at 16 and the senior phase ends at 18 – a senior phase where most of the challenges to CfE exist and which continues to influence curriculum structure and pedagogy in the earlier years.

This is a major weakness and leaves a very large hole at the heart of the analysis and associated recommendations. Any new “narrative” of CfE which comes from this report must include the 15-18 phase, which exerts such a powerful influence over both pupils and teachers in the planning and delivery of secondary education.

Daniel Murphy is a retired secondary headteacher, now teaching at the University of Edinburgh and co-editor of Everyone’s Future: lessons from 50 years of Scottish comprehensive schooling

‘Backing’ for NIF assessment

According to the Scottish government, the OECD review supports the decision to introduce a National Improvement Framework (NIF) with standardised national assessments at P1, P4, P7 and S3.

The report says the NIF has the potential to provide the robust evidence base the Scottish education system currently lacks, “whether for system-level policymaking, or for local authorities or an individual school”.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon (pictured) welcomed the comments, saying: “I am particularly pleased that the OECD supports our decision to develop and implement a National Improvement Framework.

“We share their view that we have a great opportunity to lead the world in developing an integrated assessment and evaluation framework.”

However, there may be less agreement on the emphasis of the new framework. The Scottish government’s blueprint for the reform stated that “at its heart” are the planned national standardised assessments in literacy and numeracy.

But the OECD report warns explicitly against an “intensive focus on literacy and numeracy”, saying this tends to “sideline other important areas of learning, such as science, history and geography, physical and health education, the arts, citizenship, and a wide range of what are now termed 21st-century skills”.

It continues: “Unless a range of metrics is available that reflects the full ambition of CfE, the nature of quality and equity always risks being reduced to the most readily measurable.”

Emma Seith

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