Curriculum for Excellence: Failure at the heart of school reform

The new curriculum is reportedly causing 'anxiety' among teachers. Picture: TSPL
The new curriculum is reportedly causing 'anxiety' among teachers. Picture: TSPL
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THE troubled introduction of the country’s new curriculum risks undermining the effectiveness of teaching in Scotland’s schools, a new report has warned.

Researchers at Stirling University’s School of Education, who have studied the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), found some schools were struggling under the weight of expectations, with many over-stretched teachers worried about the impact on their students.

The report, one of the first published since the introduction of the curriculum in 2010, said many schools had embraced the new framework, with positive results for teachers and pupils alike. But others had only introduced the curriculum when it became “absolutely necessary”, despite having had six years to prepare. Some of these schools had simply adopted a “tick-box” approach, doing the minimum required of them.

The report warned that many teachers were continuing to feel “anxiety” about how “vague” the new curriculum is, with many in the profession believing they were “floundering in the dark”.

Many teachers expressed concern that the pupils at the forefront of the curriculum were being treated like “guinea pigs”.

Read the report in full (PDF)

Dr Mark Priestley, one of the report’s authors, said many schools had failed to grasp the potential of the CfE.

He said: “The majority of schools have not fully embraced the possibilities of Curriculum for Excellence. The general impression is that not an awful lot is changing out there. One of the big changes we’ve seen in the last ten years is a change in teaching methods, but a lot of that was going on anyway without Curriculum for Excellence.

“An opportunity has been missed to radically transform the way things are done. There’s a danger it will become a damp squib. I don’t buy the argument that it doesn’t offer considerable potential, but for various reasons we’re not getting transformational change.”

He said some schools had adopted an “audit approach”, rather than giving teachers the freedom to create their ownlessons. “Teachers have not had to operate this way for a good many years – the curriculum has been prescriptive,” he said.

“I suspect there’s a lack of confidence in doing the curriculum development that’s required. There’s been a lot of support (from the Scottish Government), but perhaps it has been the wrong sort of support. There was a lot of material produced which didn’t always illuminate very well. There needed to be far more guidance.”

According to the report, which used interviews and a survey of teachers from one unnamed local authority to compile its findings, many schools have adopted an approach of “strategic compliance” rather than a genuine attempt at overhauling the curriculum.

The report notes: “In some schools there has been a pro- active whole-school or departmental approach to curriculum development based around discussion of the principles, practices and ‘big ideas’ of CfE. This ‘big picture’ view potentially enables schools to make radical changes to develop practices that are fit for purpose in the context of the new curriculum.

“In contrast, other schools have focused on cross-referencing the Experiences and Outcomes (Es and Os) with existing content. This more conservative approach potentially minimises change, to that absolutely required to meet the perceived demands of CfE, allowing schools to ‘tick the box’.”

The report also raised further concerns about the introduction of the new National exams, which are due to replace Standard Grades and Intermediates from 2013/14.

East Renfrewshire, home to some of the country’s best-performing state schools, has already decided to delay the new qualifications for a year to allow its teachers more time to prepare.

Among teachers in other areas, there have been complaints about the lack of guidance in relation to the new exams, the researchers found.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, said: “One of the real changes in terms of Curriculum for Excellence should be how kids learn and how teachers teach.

“There’s been a huge focus around qualifications, but that’s not what Curriculum for Excellence is about.

“We’ve raised concerns that in some areas there’s been an approach that’s more about checklists, audits and ticking boxes, which is missing the whole purpose of the programme.

“Some of that is contributing to the workload issue for teachers by creating bureaucracy on what should be a classroom dynamic. The aims which teachers were happy to embrace have been smothered by this tick-box approach.”

The researchers said the implementation of the new curriculum had gone more smoothly in primary schools than in secondaries, where some teachers and pupils regarded the CfE as just “another subject”.

Despite lingering concerns about the impact on learning, the majority of teachers had responded “very positively to the general philosophy and ideas behind CfE”, the report said.

The report concludes: “CfE has much to commend it, although its implementation has been far from smooth. There remains a risk that eventual implementation in many schools will not represent the sorts of transformational change envisaged by the architects of the curriculum.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government has listened to teachers’ views throughout implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence and has responded supportively, most recently providing an additional £3.5 million package relating specifically to the transition to the new qualifications, linked to wider CfE implementation.

“This research is based on information collected in the previous school year in a single council area and great strides have been made since then to ensure effective implementation and build the confidence of teachers.

“The relevant council, we understand, has already learnt from the findings of the research and has reviewed its implementation programme, building on the strengths identified in the report, and addressed areas where further work is required.”

But last night Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith argued that the report showed education secretary Mike Russell had “lost control” of the curriculum. She said: “His pretence that everything in the school garden is currently rosy is cutting absolutely no ice with parents and teachers.

“He needs to explain why it is that, even with some additional resources being promised and all his personal assurances, many schools still feel they are in the dark about some key aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence.

“That is not good enough when it comes to the biggest curriculum reform in a generation.

“The fact that senior education professionals are finding that, eight years on, there is still a sizeable percentage of teachers who feel that there is a lack of coherent direction within the strategy for Curriculum for Excellence, and an ongoing vagueness about some of the guidance and terminology, is a matter for great concern.”

Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry, added: “The findings of this report do not surprise me. It reflects what teachers have been saying for some considerable time. There’s been patchy development of the curriculum across Scotland and some schools are further advanced than others.

“I fear that despite the warm words of Mike Russell and the promises of support, this is not translating into practical delivery in every school in Scotland.

“It’s time for the Scottish Government to make sure there’s the application of proper resources and support to make this happen and to sort out the problems that clearly exist.

“Otherwise, we run the risk where the system degenerates not just into farce, but into real problems for Scotland’s pupils, and we can’t afford to let them suffer because of a failure to properly prepare.”