Reverse Engineering A Curriculum for Excellence

One of the great criticisms of the Scottish secondary school curriculum is that it has been overly influenced by university entrance qualifications and that the subsequent “trickle down “ effect dominates the curriculum all the way down to S1 – despite the fact that less than 50% of all children go on to university.

It was whilst pondering this fact and struggling with my  attempts to sketch out a curriculum model for secondary schools that I wondered if I could turn this phenomenon to my advantage. My problem had been that I had followed what I thought to be the logical approach to developing a curriculum model by starting at the foundations and building from there, i.e. start at S1 and move on from there taking each year group in turn.  The problem I kept coming up against was that I seemed to create what might be termed stubs i.e. they tended to be end points in themselves and didn’t naturally lend themselves to a flowing curriculum.

If, in reality, most secondary school curriculum models are actually based upon a “trickle down” effect why not recognise the power of the reverse engineering of the curriculum and seek instead to build a different engine – which would still serve the needs of higher education – but which would also serve the needs of every young person and the needs of society.

As I’ve started to experiment with this approach it has become apparent that the building blocks and connections between different year group experiences have been much easier to fit together. Perhaps it’s because I can see where I am going as opposed to feeling my way into the dark, e.g. As opposed to “That’s the S1 curriculum finished – now what will the S2 look like?” but rather “OK if that’s S4 what do people need to have in place to allow them to get best value from that”

Over the course of a series of posts I intend to try to imagine what an S6 curriculum would look like and also describe a young person’s timetable of study. The more I talk to people it’s this kind of concrete detail which they are seeking – even if it’s only to disagree with. Of course the model created here will reflect the aspirations and official guidance relating to A Curriculum for Excellence as opposed to be a flight of personal fancy.

Having completed the S6 model I’ll then imagine the S5, then S4 and so on.  I hope people will comment and contribute to the exercise as I’d hope to eventually share it formally with my colleagues in schools as a series of curricular scenarios with which they can actively engage and in turn develop their own models.


9 thoughts on “Reverse Engineering A Curriculum for Excellence

  1. You make a really good point about starting with the end product and working back from there. Makes sense really.

    One of my concerns is deciding what we want to do in time to begin implementing it, especially as the implementation is due to work the other way – starting at S1 next year.

    As ever, being a teacher, I worry about developing our new S1 curriculum only to find that in a couple of years we have to start again. I think I’m typical of many teachers in that I dream of the day when major changes are the exception as opposed to the norm. I therefore always hope that whatever I’m developing is as future proof as possible.

  2. What fkelly said!

    Your approach is sound, Don, and highlights the fact that in reality we have to plan the entire curriculum before next August, not just S1. That’s a lot of work to do in 10 months, especially given the tight financial situation in schools this session.

  3. Part of the reason for 50% of the population going to Higher Education is that many vocational subjects have become degree subjects (Teaching, Art, Music, PE, etc.)

    A single unified end point for all young citizens compulsory education? Has this got anything to do with string theory? 🙂

    A couple of questions:
    1. Why do you think Schooling is the best method of achieving the outcomes of a CfE?

    2. Are the CfE aspirations being met under the current curriculum?

    Perhaps the most innovative approach to CfE would be to adapt schooling from a one size fits all to a organisation which supports individuals aspirations and addresses pupil’s needs.

    Think about Music departments in schools. Imagine Music was a compulsory subject like English & Maths what would it look like how would it differ from present?

  4. fkelly

    Change will always be the norm in education – I’ve been in the business for 28 years and I can’t think of any time when things stood still. Yet for all this change I don’t think the school experience my children have just completed was all that different from what I had. In other words we change at the edges but we skilfully manage avoid any major shift in the way in which we structure and deliver education. Perhaps that’s what we might be able to do over the next few years?


    Thanks – I’d welcome your comments on my “Imagine” series of posts.


    Here are my amswers:

    Question 1 – No

    Question 2 – No

    Please comment on the “Imagine” posts – are they getting close to what you might envisage?

  5. Don, I haven’t had time to digest all your recent posts, but thanks for putting all your curricular thinking out in the public domain-this is going to make very interesting reading. As for reverse engineering, I am working, slowly, on learning the piano, and trying get to grips with some Bach stuff-always tricky-ask Alan Coady! I was told a good way to prepare is to practise the last bars first and progressively work backwards so that you are always moving from the earlier, unfamilar bars to the later, already practised and familiar bars. Just thought I’d throw that in!

  6. I know what you mean Don. It’s not that I’m against change – quite the opposite in fact. However, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – perpetual change = no change at all. What’s the point working really hard to radically change everything when you know that in a few years time you’ll be back to square one? I’m sure this is why many of our ‘more experienced’ colleagues are also our more skeptical ones.

    I think the point I’m trying to make is when I make the effort to effect the changes, I’d like them to be as real, thought through, meaningful and long-lasting as possible.

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