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What is Curriculum for Excellence – and why do the Welsh love it?

A beginner's guide to Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence and the bits the Welsh have borrowed

What is Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence – and why do the Welsh love it?

Wales is an “unashamed” admirer of “Scotland’s approach to curriculum reform”, the Welsh academic Gareth Evans recently said. So what does the Scottish curriculum – Curriculum for Excellence – look like and how much has it inspired the approach being taken in Wales?

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’


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 were 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.

The new qualifications, meanwhile, were introduced for the first time 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.

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 has, in fact, resulted in 20,000 pages of online guidance.

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 professional development cut at the same time as trying to introduce an ambitious reform.

What have the Welsh borrowed?

Well, for a start they employed a former Scottish chief inspector of education and current education adviser to the Scottish government, Graham Donaldson, to review the Welsh curriculum and make recommendations for a curriculum fit for the 21st century, which has become known as Successful Futures. As mentioned above, writing earlier this year, Welsh academic Gareth Evans said Wales was an “unashamed” admirer “for Scotland’s approach to curriculum reform”.

Anything else?

Lots. Let’s start with the language around Successful Futures. The Welsh are talking about the new curriculum being “a big culture change”; the Scottish curriculum change was hailed as “the most significant educational development in a generation”.

In Wales, they are talking about scrapping boundaries between subjects; in Scotland, with the new curriculum came a push for more interdisciplinary learning.

The four purposes of the Welsh curriculum are essentially the same as CfE’s aforementioned four capacities and the plan is that Welsh learners will progress through five “steps”, which equate roughly to the five levels of CfE.

The three responsibilities of all teachers in Scotland under CfE are literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing; in Wales, the plan is for “three cross-curricular responsibilities”: literacy, numeracy and digital competence.

The Welsh curriculum is also to be outcomes-based. So, the expectations around what should be achieved as learners progress is expressed from the learner’s perspective, using terms such as "I have..." and "I can...". These are known as “areas of learning and experience” and the so-called experiences and outcomes of CfE are framed in the same way.

Again, like Scotland, the Welsh are implementing the new curriculum first in the primary sector, which will embark on the new regime in September 2022. It will be introduced into secondary one year group at a time as those primary pupils make the transition from primary. Full rollout will be achieved in 2026.

When learners reach the point where they would usually be sitting GCSEs, new qualifications will be in place.

Are the Welsh doing anything differently?

Well, they’ll be hoping to get the implementation right – which is, of course, where many believe Scotland fell down. While Mr Evans said Wales had been inspired by Scotland he also said it could not look to Scotland as “some kind of panacea” or as having “all the answers”.

Last year, 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.

So the approach taken by exam body, Qualifications Wales, will be critical.

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