One of Scotland’s leading education experts has claimed reforms are “dumbing down” the national curriculum and warned the impact on children’s futures could be “disastrous”.
Professor Lindsay Paterson, who has advised Scottish politicians on education policy since the 1990s, said Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) risked backfiring and widening the gap between the richest and poorest pupils.
Development of Curriculum for Excellence began over a decade ago in bid make learning more holistic and help young people from all backgrounds achieve at school. But Mr Paterson said a lack of “academic rigour” meant the new system, which has culminated in the introduction of a new set of national exams in secondary schools, risked failing those it was intended to benefit the most.
He blamed Scotland’s “uniform political culture” and “left-of-centre consensus” for allowing CfE to develop with its core tenets largely unchallenged. Mr Paterson claimed that researchers across a wide range of disciplines feared losing funding and support if they asked “difficult questions”.
All the main political parties have given the flagship educational reform since devolution their backing over several years.
“Curriculum for Excellence could be disastrous,” the University of Edinburgh academic warned. “And there’s two main reasons for that: One is the absence of academic rigour - it really is a dumbing down of the curriculum.
“It no longer is the systematic and rigorous and structured way it used to be in the past. But the major worry perhaps is even deeper than that, which is that it will widen inequality.
“The old academic knowledge - the best that has been thought and said by human beings - will still be given to the children of the well-educated middle class by their parents.
“But the other children - who can’t get it from their parents - are completely dependent on schools for it.
“And if they’re not getting the best that has been thought and said from schools, they will get it from nowhere, and that will make inequality of learning and of culture wider than it has ever been.”
Concern about Scotland’s decline in key domestic and international educational performance measures has put schools at the heart of political debate. Education Secretary John Swinney defended CfE, saying it had been developed through a “long process of debate”
“When I go round the schools of Scotland I see teachers highly motivated by Scotland’s curriculum because what our curriculum has done is allowed the teachers of Scotland to deploy their professional skills,” Mr Swinney said.
“The people who are benefiting from their professional skills are the young people of Scotland who just last month secured over 150,000 passes at higher level, demonstrating the academic rigour of our qualifications and our curriculum.”
Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: “We have long argued that there are significant problems with the Curriculum for Excellence - not within its basic principles but in the way the SNP and the education agencies have delivered it.
“There is a complete lack of clarity around its definition and therefore it has been open to different interpretations which has brought confusion to our classrooms.
“Parents, teachers and pupils are frustrated by the lack of progress and that is not acceptable.
“We entirely agree with Professor Paterson when he says that there is not enough academic rigour in our schools.
“Too often, the teaching of core knowledge has had to give way to the teaching of skills but these skills cannot be developed properly if pupils not have the basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy and of the traditional subjects on a school curriculum.