Penny Lewis: No marks for Curriculum for Excellence

Over the past decade our world-class education system has been systematically destroyed. Picture: Jane Barlow
Over the past decade our world-class education system has been systematically destroyed. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE Scottish education system was once a source of national pride. Until recently, Scotland sustained an education system driven by the belief that all individuals, regardless of social class, would benefit from a liberal academic education. The exposure of all Scotland’s children to “the best that has been written and thought” was seen as a public and personal good.

According to Edinburgh-based academic Lindsay Paterson, Scotland’s commitment to the “Arnoldian liberal impulse” survived well into the 1980s, when the rest of the world’s education experts had moved on to more instrumental policies. Scotland’s longstanding commitment to liberal education was forged in the 1920s, when education reformers fought to extend secondary academic education. In the mid-1960s, when comprehensive education arrived, Scotland embraced it as a continuation of an established curricular tradition.

‘It draws on all of the worst aspects of the new internationally adopted pedagogies’

Over the past decade, this world-class education system has been systematically destroyed. Policymakers, through a series of reforms called the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), have radically restructured education. Labour’s Jack McConnell introduced the policy in 2004. The SNP implemented it in 2010 and has engaged in an aggressive culture of compliance ever since. Last year, it commissioned an Aberdeen-based oil magnate, Sir Ian Wood, to review education and employment. Wood’s findings are now being used to complete the demolition job begun by McConnell.

The CfE redefined the purpose of Scottish education from “academic education for all” to a checklist of personal qualities. The purpose of education was to produce “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors”. This new curriculum was sold to the Scottish public on the grounds that it would give children more choice, that their education could be “personalised”, and that they would take ownership of their learning through educational portfolios and personal-development plans. The reality is that pupils have fewer subject choices; the only personal element of the new regime relates not to the academic programme, but to a therapeutic agenda, as exemplified by the Named Persons law.

CfE is founded on the idea that Young People (always capitalised) need soft and transferable skills, not big ideas and history. With more than 18 per cent of Scotland’s youth unemployed, this argument appeals to many pupils and parents, but we should not be fooled into thinking these reforms are about job creation. Vocational training is being used as a tool to attack the old framework of liberal education.

These policymakers and teachers appear to believe that the very thing that made Scotland’s education good – the old system of individual academic competition – is somehow to blame for Scotland’s social inequality. In the old system, opportunity was open to all regardless of class; in the new system, educators don’t genuinely recognise the value of academic education. They see liberal academic education as an irrelevance or a problem, a privilege associated with the middle classes that excludes and marginalises large numbers of children.

Ironically, this new system, led by people that benefited from the old system, is founded on the idea that “a lack of parity of esteem between academic and vocational course” in the old Scottish education system is to blame for the poor attainment of children from areas of deprivation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pattern of declining social mobility in Scotland is not a cultural question, it is the product of low levels of investment and poor employment prospects.

This new curriculum draws on all of the worst aspects of the new internationally adopted pedagogies. It elevates learning over teaching, undermining the intellectual authority of teachers, and uses student mot­ivation and enjoyment as the measure of what is worth knowing. It attempts to blur the boundaries between specialist disciplines and rests upon the idea that the purpose of education is to build pupils’ confidence and self-esteem rather than their knowledge and understanding. It‘s not really a curriculum – local authorities now decide what children should learn and when – nor is it excellent. If it’s not too late, the mis­named Curriculum for Excellence should be abandoned. «