Gordon Lawrie: History lesson in Curriculum for Excellence

Well might John Swinney admit that the PISA results earlier this month '“ which saw Scottish 15-year-olds' education performance plummet since 2012 '“ make uncomfortable reading for the Scottish Government, the Scottish educational establishment and teachers alike. Most of all, though, they'll make very uncomfortable reading for the young people themselves, and for their parents.

Swinney is unhappy about the PISA results. Picture: John Devlin

Since the results were released social media has been awash with comments pointing out that the decline in performance exactly coincides with the introduction of Scotland’s vaunted Curriculum for Excellence. Diverse voices, such as the teaching unions and education expert Professor Lindsay Paterson, have warned since its inception that CfE offered nothing worthwhile to schools, yet their concerns have been brushed aside as mere negativism. After all, who could argue with CfE’s main aims, to develop young people into confident, responsible individuals, yet capable of working in teams – all without compromising success?

Yet if these four “capacities” – to create confident individuals, effective contributors, responsible citizens and successful learners – are all you know about CfE, then you know very little about the policy.

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It’s important to acknowledge at this point that CfE wasn’t an SNP initiative, it began under Jack McConnell’s Labour administration around 2004. Hailed by its instigators as the great classroom liberator, CfE would “free up” teachers to educate youngsters the way they knew was right – hence the value placed on those core values.

Teachers, though, are a cynical lot. They’ve had to ride more revolutions than Communist China, and they wanted to know a little more detail. How often did we hear the cry that the emperor had no clothes? And when the promised detail eventually emerged, it transpired that the curriculum was often completely unteachable. Secondary schools were exhorted to teach like primaries. (If you want to see the nonsense in this, imagine a Primary 7 child heading for Oxford.) And a bit like Mao’s China, it was often dangerous, at least to promotion prospects, to question the Shiny Green Folders, as they became known. Demography, too, has compounded the problem in the past decade: the retiral of a generation of baby-boomer teachers means that a lifetime’s experience of splicing the better new methods to the best of the traditional ones has been lost.

Don’t just take my word for it. Many school inspectors have been retiring too, and you’ll hear a fair number of them complain that, as civil servants, it was simply impossible to break ranks and speak the truth.

I’ve said that the SNP didn’t start the Curriculum for Excellence ball rolling, but there’s no denying that it has to take responsibility for how it turned out. It had endless opportunities to acknowledge the reality that teachers were struggling to make sense of it all, but instead listened only to the counsel of those who said the things it wanted to hear. All over Scotland, teachers are saying “told you so”. Now the SNP administration is surprised at the decline in exam attainment, even though CfE was quite specifically introduced to move the focus away from attainment alone. You can’t have it both ways.

Curriculum for Excellence will, of course, bite the dust like every other educational trend, and it will be replaced by another one. With luck, it will bring something new, a handful of innovations that good teachers can add to their armoury of traditional teaching strategies. But CfE itself looks like being just another failed experiment.

Meanwhile, feel for those young people who have been failed by CfE. Think about those who might be looking at a brighter future had it not been so slavishly adhered to. They’ve missed their big chance. And if you got elected, gained promotion, or made some sort of living paying lip-service to Curriculum for Excellence, and did nothing to try to stop it, then those young people are on your conscience.

Author and publisher Gordon Lawrie was head of Modern Studies in a large Edinburgh secondary for almost 30 years