Comment: Sizing up the Curriculum for Excellence

Scottish pupils have set an exams record, but will the Curriculum for Excellence make the grade next year, asks Dani Garavelli

The aim of the new curriculum is to produce rounded young people but there are concerns about its value and how it will be implemented. Picture: Contributed
The aim of the new curriculum is to produce rounded young people but there are concerns about its value and how it will be implemented. Picture: Contributed

THE hundreds of thousands of pupils who received their Standard Grades results last week made history on two counts. The 14 to 16-year-olds were the last to sit the exams introduced 29 years ago and marked the end of an era by securing a record pass rate. But next year’s intake will make history too: they will be the first to try to secure new qualifications – the National 4s and National 5s – as the Curriculum for Excellence, already introduced in primaries and S1-3, finally reaches the upper secondary. Whether their results will be something to crow about remains to be seen.

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) represents the biggest overhaul of the Scottish education system since the Second World War. Its aims – to produce rounded young people who are able to adapt to the demands of the modern world – are laudable and built on a cross-party consensus. And yet, as the roll-out reaches its final stages, there is still confusion over what it means for pupils, and mounting concern over aspects of its implementation.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

According to the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, communication from schools has been poor, leaving parents under-informed. Many are not aware, for example, that, unlike the Standard Grade general level (which they replace), National 4s are internally assessed, have no examination and are awarded on a pass/fail basis.

There are fears that, in some primary schools, the drive towards a more active learning style has become little more than a bureaucratic exercise, while many secondaries are torn between the CfE vision of a more flexible, less exams-oriented system and pressure to produce good results.

Such qualms are not confined to parents; even some of the architects of CfE have expressed concern about a lack of clarity in the articulation of its guiding principles. Others have questioned how the Scottish Government can have committed itself to such a huge project without first testing any of its ideas in pilot schemes.

Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) – though in favour of the CfE – points out that the children now going into S4 have been at the front line for every stage of the implementation in secondary; these guinea pigs were the first year group to embark on CfE courses in first, second and third year (which are now supposed to provide a broad, general education) and are the first to take part in the one-year dash for the new National 4s and 5s.

Conscious of this, the union requested a delay of a year so the S1-3 curriculum could be bedded in before teachers had to prepare for new exams. “In S1-S3, the changes were largely about the classroom practices, the teaching and learning, and that was important irrespective of the qualifications,” says EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan. “Our view was we wanted those to take root, rather than going straight into new exams because of the high stakes involved.”

The request was refused; instead the EIS won a concession that course materials for the National 4/5 courses would be produced centrally, rather than schools having to do everything from scratch, but the materials were only available in April and were published online, so they had to be printed and photocopied. Since this has workload and resource implications, the union plans to approach the Scottish Government for more money for schools.

With all this going on, it’s hardly surprising some parents fear their children will suffer, but the Scottish Government is too far down the line to change course. The question is then: what can be done to ensure schools know what they are aiming for and prevent the most positive aspects of the CfE getting lost in a sea of jargon and bureaucracy?

There are those, of course, who are implacably opposed to the whole CfE concept, seeing its emphasis on values such as citizenship as a wishy-washy alternative to traditional education. Earlier this year, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education at the University of Edinburgh, launched a scathing attack, branding CfE as “vacuous” and “dishonest”, with an exam system which “lacked all credibility”.

But even those who favour the change of approach concede there have been problems both in the communication and in the delivery of its “big ideas”. “If you ask 50 head teachers what CfE is about you’ll get 50 different answers,” says Keir Bloom, a former director of education, and a member of the original curriculum review group. “We have a long way to go in properly communicating its central message.”

While most people understand the four main “capacities” (see sidebar), Bloom says there has been a failure to grasp that it has “deep learning” at its core.

It is this same lack of clarity which has led at least one local authority to limit the number of subjects taken at S4 to six, while pupils in other parts of the country can take eight – a decision which has infuriated parents, who believe there should be a level playing field. The decision was born of the notion that each subject taken to National 4/5 level had to be taught for a minimum of 160 hours, making six the most you could achieve in a single year, but Bloom says CfE was never meant to be “an arid exercise in timetabling”.

Inevitably, too, some schools have been more open to change than others; the CfE is revolutionary in that instead of stipulating the content of courses it provides a list of desired pupil “outcomes” and encourages individual schools to decide how to achieve them. However, where the point of the exercise was to get teachers to come up with new ways of engaging with pupils, many schools have simply looked at the outcomes and worked out how they can marry them to existing practices.

“My view is that CfE is prescriptive in the wrong places,” says Mark Priestley, professor of education at Stirling University, who conducted a study into how it was being implemented within one local authority. I would have liked to have seen a little more prescription in terms of content, and I certainly would have liked to have seen more prescription of the process specified by which schools go about engaging with this, but instead what we’ve got is prescription in terms of these outcomes, which are fairly woolly in the view of most teachers – and this notion that it’s up to schools to sort it out.”

While carrying out his research, Priestley found some secondary schools were embracing the broader, multidisciplinary approach to education CfE is supposed to provide in S1-S3 by introducing, say, a project on Africa, involving every department, while others were merely tacking on one period a week for CfE work.

Another of the guiding principles of CfE was that the senior phase should be more flexible and less exams-driven. This was partly in response to a sense that, since some of the schools with the best results have the highest university drop-out rates, there ought to be a shift from the regurgitation of facts to higher order thinking.

When the CfE was first discussed, the idea was that pupils who were likely Higher candidates would skip the National 4/5 stage and so have two years to focus on their 5th year exams. But this has met with two stumbling blocks. The first is that – contrary to expectations – there is no fall-back position for those who decide to go straight to Highers. If they fail, they come away with nothing. The other is the university admissions system; at present the most sought-after courses are looking for the highest grades in the shortest amount of time. The way things stand, pupils who take a Higher over two years are likely to be discriminated against, even though they may have a deeper grasp of their subject. The result is that – far from offering their pupils a variety of pathways – most schools are playing it safe, putting most eligible pupils forward for the National 4/5s in S4 and Highers in S5. This alone demonstrates how difficult it is to overhaul a system in which the focus on exam results is so entrenched.

“Real or perceived downward parental pressure means the whole thing gets clogged with trying to maximise attainment at the end of 5th year,” says Brian Boyd, emeritus professor of education at Strathclyde who was also on the original CfE review group. “I don’t think that’s been resolved yet.”

There is still is a reservoir of goodwill towards CfE in many quarters. “I think it has been a considerable force for good,” says Bloom. “We are now more concerned about what young people are able to do, more concerned with understanding and skill and less concerned with the ability to regurgitate factual content.” But there are also those who are perplexed by the lack of any real attempt to test out the theories on which the whole exercise is predicated. “If we do things on such a grandiose scale, we need to have evidence to guide our decisions,” says Professor Sergio Della Sala, a professor of cognitive human neuro-science at the University of Edinburgh, who was consulted on CfE’s well-being section.

“Quite often in education I see good people, who are really eager to do well, follow what look like very good ideas and, to my mind, this is a bit dangerous, because we end up having practices in schools which are not based on facts, but on wishful thinking. Without a framework, without piloting, without changing the mentality and without a lot of money to back it up it’s not going to work.”

In the absence of empirical evidence, it is impossible to judge if the new curriculum has the power to address the most pressing problem in Scottish education – the huge gulf between rich and poor. Its proponents claim the emphasis on producing active learners at an early age will help bridge the gap, its critics that the focus on course assessment and folio work and the defection of more affluent children to the private sector (where other exams will still be offered) could make things worse.

It may be years before we can fully assess the success or failure of the CfE. But when next year’s intake of exam candidates turn over their National 5 papers, they will be in little doubt as to how much is at stake. Their results will be a measure not only of their own abilities, but of the capacity of the new curriculum to deliver on its vision of a “better, fairer, more robust system that promotes quality of achievement throughout education”. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1