What will the 'refreshed narrative' of CfE achieve?

Mark Priestley looks at reasons for this week's attempt to simplify Curriculum for Excellence, and whether it will have an impact

What will the 'refreshed narrative' of CfE achieve?

This week saw the release of the new "refreshed narrative on Scotland’s curriculum". This new initiative has been developed by a working group, comprising a wide range of stakeholders in Scottish education, and reporting to the Curriculum and Assessment Board, in response to the recommendation of the OECD in 2015 that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) needed a simplified narrative to reduce its complexity.

While the narrative was well-received by practitioners during an extensive period of consultation in the lead-up to its release, the reaction on my Twitter feed has been considerably more mixed – perhaps predictably.

Comments included legitimate questions about what the narrative might achieve, along with responses that raised concerns that this does not represent genuine change, only a rearranging of the curricular deckchairs:

*What are educators [sic] reflections? Do we still need #CfE2.00 #CfE 2.0 or is the new narrative suffice [sic] to overtake issues identified in helping progress Scottish education?

*What difference do we hope a “refreshed narrative” will make?

*That is indeed the question. The implication is that, if we had only told the story better, we would have better outcomes. It really raises the concern that we are looking at spin more than substance.


Quick read: What the OECD said in 2015 that Scotland needed to do to make its school system the 'best in the world'

More from Mark Priestley: Is Scotland’s curriculum really narrowing?

A teacher's view: Is it time for Curriculum for Excellence 2.0?

A headteacher's view: ‘Scottish education system needs a fundamental reboot’

A former education director's view: 'Be wary of unjustified attacks on Scottish education'


Others were critical about the design, the lack of new content and the conceptualisation of key issues:

*Have to say I’m not impressed by the website design and UI [user interface], content very familiar.

*My favourite bit: "[Broad General Education] this includes understanding the world, Scotland’s place in it and the environment, referred to as Learning for Sustainability”. I muse over the environment as if it was something peripheral and "other" to the big world which has Scotland in it…

Some people were more upbeat, seeing the potential of the narrative to facilitate genuine discussions about curriculum change:

*Useful tool to have real conversations in school about whether our curriculum fulfils the potential of this narrative.

In the light of this commentary, I think it is useful, as someone who was involved in discussions about the development of the narrative, to address questions about its purpose.

What is the narrative not about?

It is helpful to first establish what the narrative is not about. It is not a revision of CfE, and does not seek to make changes to the curriculum. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have been a critic of aspects of CfE. I continue to maintain that many aspects of the curriculum have been problematic, including the lack of attention to knowledge, its over-specification via the "experiences and outcomes" (Es and Os) and benchmarks, and the distorting effects of accountability. There is certainly a case for a wholesale review of the curriculum, and this may come in time. Arguably, now is not the right time for this – the last thing Scotland’s over-burdened teaching workforce currently needs is another major round of change. So it is not surprising that the narrative offers nothing new in terms of content. It does, however, offer a very useful resource for making sense of the curriculum, and developing it constructively in schools.

What, then, is the purpose of the narrative?

One of my key criticisms of CfE to date has been the lack of a coherent framework for the curriculum, in contradistinction to countries like Ireland where the curriculum is set out in a single framework document. Instead, CfE has spanned multiple documents, with multifarious purposes – guidance, justification, and claims about what constitutes good learning. Experience has shown that this has created confusion for practitioners, who have struggled to make sense of the curriculum (see Priestley & Minty, 2013). Profuse guidance has not been accompanied by the sorts of meso-level support for curriculum making that might help practitioners make sense of this guidance in relation to their own practice.

For these reasons, the new narrative is a very welcome development in my view. It has two key purposes:

  1. It is a single point of entry – a one-stop-shop – for relevant documentation to guide schools as they develop their curricula.

  2. More important in my view, it offers a process for engaging with CfE. The narrative is structured around why questions, what questions and how questions. It is thus not intended to be a new product, but is instead a process tool for engaging with the curriculum. It is intended to stimulate the sorts of debates that should be ongoing in schools about what education is for, and how it can be best structured. It fits nicely in that sense with the calls of one contributor on my Twitter feed for "more on teacher agency".

My understanding is that the narrative will be launched at the Scottish Learning Festival, and that it will indeed be framed as part of a process of re-engagement with CfE – hopefully one that will be accompanied by resources (including time) to facilitate that re-engagement – rather than a new product to add to the plethora of guidance already out there. This could be very timely as schools currently develop their own curricular rationales, and as the agenda of school empowerment unfolds.

Professor Mark Priestley is a curriculum expert based at the University of Stirling. This piece originally appeared on his blog

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