What is Curriculum for Excellence?

It’s long been the million-dollar question in Scottish education – and here's our take on it

What is Curriculum for Excellence?

Curriculum for Excellence was introduced in Scottish schools almost a decade ago, and it's fair to say it has been a bumpy ride since then.

Recently, criticism of CfE has been around the problem of  many pupils in the fourth year of secondary pursuing fewer subjects. In response,  education secretary John Swinney recently ordered an independent review of the senior phase, which runs from S4-6.

But how did we get to this point?

What is Curriculum for Excellence?

Curriculum for Excellence is the curriculum taught in Scottish schools; it spans preschool to secondary and sets out what children aged 3-18 should be able to do as they progress through school.  


News editor's take: We can admire the ideals of CfE even if we rue the reality

Former education director's take: ‘Let's reignite the passion in Scottish education’

Welsh academic’s take: ‘Scotland’s mistakes will shape Welsh education reform’

Narrowing of the curriculum: Statistics show the number of schools where pupils take an average of seven subjects has plummeted since 2013


Why was it introduced?

By now, the idea that schools are preparing pupils for jobs that don’t yet exist has been repeated so often it has become something of a cliché. But in the early days of CfE – which kicked off with the national conversation in 2002 – this was something of a revelation and the goal of the new curriculum was to give pupils the tools to cope in that fast-paced world.

The idea was that pupils should get a more rounded education in which broader achievements would be recognised alongside academic attainment. So, as well as creating “successful learners”, the goal of CfE was to turn pupils into “confident individuals”, “effective contributors” and “responsible citizens” – the so-called four capacities of CfE.

CfE was also meant to move away from central prescription of curriculum and give teachers more professional freedom.

When was CfE introduced in Scotland?

CfE was conceived – and almost unanimously supported by the teaching profession – in a “national conversation” in 2002. Then, after a long development period, implementation began in earnest in 2010.

New qualifications were introduced in 2014, beginning with National 4 and National 5. The new Higher was introduced the following year, and in 2016 the new Advanced Higher was introduced.

How is it structured?

The curriculum has two stages: the broad general education (from the early years to the end of S3) and the senior phase (S4 to S6). It also has eight curriculum areas and literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing are recognised as being particularly important – these areas are seen as being the "responsibility of all".

The eight curriculum areas are:

  • Expressive arts
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Languages (including English, Gaidhlig, Gaelic learners and modern languages)
  • Mathematics
  • Religious and moral education
  • Sciences
  • Social studies
  • Technologies.

Has it been a success?

The stock response to that question from teachers, headteachers and opposition politicians tends to be that they continue to support the principles of CfE but believe it has been implemented badly. The main complaints from teachers are that CfE has led to a huge increase in their workload and – in the early days in particular – excessive paperwork. That things went awry somewhere along the line is probably best illustrated by the revelation that, while CfE was meant to free up teachers to teach, it actually resulted in 20,000 pages of online guidance.

Has anything else gone wrong?

In 2018, Keir Bloomer, one of the architects of CfE, told a conference: “The decision to proceed with the introduction of new qualifications was probably the single most important mistake made in the implementation process.”

A secondary headteacher agreed with him, saying the new qualifications had “killed” CfE because they were too similar to what had gone before.

But another reason why CfE has struggled is that it was introduced at a time of significant austerity. Schools have seen their money for resources, teaching staff, support staff and CPD cut at the same time as trying to introduce an ambitious reform.

The most recent criticism of CfE is that it has led to a narrowing of the curriculum in S4. The University of Dundee’s Jim Scott has been responsible for much of the research in this area. Professor Scott, a former secondary headteacher, has said that roughly half of Scotland’s schools are now offering six subjects in S4 and that the narrowing of the curriculum had spread through parts of Scotland like a “virus”.

Let’s end on a positive – what does CfE do well?

Its aim was to create rounded human beings – pupils who embody the four capacities. Professor Rowena Arshad was a guest on an episode of the Tes Scotland podcast just after stepping down as head of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education. She said that Scottish teachers had worked hard to provide their pupils with an “all-round education” designed to produce “the next generation of civic-minded citizens”.

She added: “We might not be on top of the league tables for Pisa [the Programme for International Student Assessment], but we may well be top of the league table for young people who care about each other and who have community. So you use a different set of indicators [and] you might get a different set of results.”

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