Education in Scotland: Curriculum for Excellence has failed and should be replaced by a focus on knowledge and discipline – Murdo Fraser MSP

There was some stark evidence about the state of Scottish education presented to the Scottish Conservatives’ conference in Aberdeen last week.

Violence and other forms of disruptive behaviour is increasingly a problem in primary schools (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

At a fringe meeting on education, Mike Corbett, national officer for Scotland at the NASUWT union, stated that many teachers had reported violent behaviour had worsened after pupils returned to classrooms following a period of home learning.

This was, he said, increasingly a problem in primary schools, with teachers being subject to serious and disruptive behaviour, including swearing at them by pupils, kicking, punching, biting and spitting.

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Teachers I know confirm that the behavioural situation has deteriorated. Many are taking time off because of stress, and others are considering leaving the profession altogether.

This is all against a backdrop of broader concerns about what is happening in our schools.

Scottish education, once the pride of the world, has been slipping down international league tables. We have had a widening attainment gap, and falling standards in basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. There have been various attempts to reform the ironically named Curriculum for Excellence, which has come under increasing criticism from educationalists.

In an attempt to address some of these issues, the Scottish Conservatives announced at our conference the start of a national conversation around replacing Curriculum for Excellence with something new, focussed on pupils being taught specific knowledge, to better prepare them for higher exams, further and adult education, and apprenticeships, and, crucially, place the early development of digital skills at its core.

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Curriculum for Excellence has been criticised for its over-emphasis on the development of skills, as a substitute for the accumulation of knowledge. Whilst this change was undoubtedly well-intended, the manner in which it has been implemented has been delivering poorer outcomes in our schools.

The development of a Curriculum for All to replace CfE, is an opportunity to reset the clock and find a new approach which should, whilst equipping young people with the skills they need for the future, ensure that they have a proper grounding in essential knowledge – something that too many of them are missing out on at present.

Reform of the curriculum will never be sufficient in itself. It needs to go hand-in-hand with provision of more teachers and classroom assistants, an increase in school autonomy, investment in school IT equipment and additional connectivity, and measures to make teaching a more attractive profession.

Part of this last ambition will involve restoring discipline in classrooms, to address precisely the concerns that have been raised by the teaching unions. The inclusion agenda which has made it harder for disruptive pupils to be removed from the classroom setting needs to be rethought.

The criticism sometimes laid at the door of the Scottish Conservatives is that, whilst we are always ready to criticise the SNP in government, we don’t always propose alternative solutions.

In the field of education, this is precisely what we are now doing, with a new vision for Scottish education that will deliver real improvements for young people, and make schools a more attractive place for teachers to work in. That is exactly the approach that a credible opposition party, looking to form the next government of Scotland, should be taking.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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