Few things are more likely to bring a flick of exasperation to the eyes of parents around Scotland than the three words, Curriculum for Excellence. Launched 13 years ago by the then Labour-led Scottish Executive, it won support across the political spectrum at the time and quickly became a key plank of Scotland’s education system. But, today, ask the average parent or teacher to explain succinctly what it means, and things quickly get complicated. For parents trusting schools to educate their children, patience is wearing thin.
When it was launched, the idea was relatively straightforward. In the 21st century, the argument went, society would require a greater focus on skills, and on personal and social responsibility than in the past.
Hence, education should no longer be about knowledge in the abstract but about how knowledge is applied. Young people should understand why they were learning just as much as what they were learning.
The aim, declared those behind the curriculum, was to create successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. And teachers would have freedom to teach as they pleased.
Ironically for a curriculum all about applying education to the real world, the problem has been translating this philosophy into a workable classroom system.
Entire forests were lost in producing thousands of pages of guidance for teachers. Despite this, the learning “outcomes and experiences” that were supposed to shape the curriculum have been vague, leaving teachers in the dark.
And no-one has the faintest idea whether the curriculum has actually boosted standards. All we do know, 13 years on, is that Scotland has slipped down the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s league table for attainment and that those nationwide Scottish surveys which the SNP has not yet abolished show a fall in literacy and numeracy standards among children in both primary and early secondary school.
My experience is that parents want something simple: they want every child to be able to go to their local school and get the same first-class education that they got. So what to do? Last year, the Scottish Conservatives decided to undertake a review of the entire Curriculum for Excellence programme and see whether fundamental reform was now necessary. Given the level of parental anxiety, we included the option of scrapping the entire programme. On Tuesday, after months discussing the issue with teachers, experts and parents, we reported back. Firstly, we decided to maintain our position of support for the fundamental principles of CfE. Teachers in classrooms are already exhausted by years of reform in schools across Scotland.
Scrapping the Curriculum altogether, after more than a decade in place, would only create more upheaval, damaging the life chances of today’s young people. It would also risk turning even more teachers off the profession, at a time when we need to recruit more and need those in place to stay.
As leader of Scotland’s main opposition party, I take seriously the prospect of running the Scottish Government in three years’ time and there’s simply no way any party with some ambitions could credibly propose such chaos. We must stick to the course. But, crucially, the time is now overdue for a ‘reset’ of the entire programme. The implementation of Curriculum for Excellence has been chaotic. And the emphasis on applying knowledge has, too often, meant core skills in literacy and numeracy have been put to one side. This only entrenches the attainment gap, as it is children from the most deprived backgrounds who most need knowledge in the basics.
So, under Liz Smith, our education spokeswoman, we’ve proposed some fresh ideas. It’s time to do away with the bureaucracy and strip Curriculum for Excellence back so everybody knows what skills we want young people to learn at each stage of their school career.
We need better support for hard-pressed teachers, including in teacher training – and it is time to explore new ways into teaching to ensure we address the shortage in schools.
Curriculum for Excellence needs to be rebalanced so acquiring core knowledge is once again given prominence. It is all very well applying knowledge but if we don’t teach young people how to spell and calculate things properly, they will miss out.
We need a reform of the SNP’s many education agencies which, sadly, are too often hindering schools, not helping them. And, lastly, I would put more power in the hands of headteachers so schools have real autonomy on how to operate.
None of these are partisan political points and we will support the SNP Government if they demonstrate a willingness to act. I only wish the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon in particular would make this her focus for once, not yet more politicking over Brexit and independence. Curriculum for Excellence was introduced against the backdrop of a remarkable level of political consensus in Scotland. That was all to the good – but the truth is consensus needs to be challenged if it isn’t to lapse into lazy thinking. I believe that the attainment of knowledge for its own sake must be a core part of any functioning education system. It is time Scotland’s curriculum restores this principle as a matter of urgency. We can do that, now, without the need for yet more top-down reform. In so doing, I hope we can win back the trust of parents and teachers across the country.