Curriculum for Excellence: Stand up and speak up

In 2002 the then Scottish Executive undertook the most extensive consultation ever of the people of Scotland on the state of school education through the National Debate on Education. In the debate, many people – pupils, parents, teachers, employers and others – said that they valued and wanted to keep many aspects of the current curriculum. Some also made compelling arguments for changes to ensure all our young people achieve successful outcomes and are equipped to contribute effectively to the Scottish economy and society, now and in the future.

Features of the curriculum which people valued were: the flexibility which already exists in the Scottish system – no one argued for a more prescriptive national system; the combination of breadth and depth offered by the curriculum; the quality of teaching; the quality of supporting material that helps teachers to deliver much of the current curriculum; and, the comprehensive principle

People argued for changes which would: reduce over-crowding in the curriculum and make learning more enjoyable; better connect the various stages of the curriculum from 3 to 18; achieve a better balance between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects and include a wider range of experiences; equip young people with the skills they will need in tomorrow’s workforce; make sure that assessment and certification support learning; allow more choice to meet the needs of individual young people.

The above description of the genesis of a Curriculum for Excellence is taken from the Purposes and Principles of the Curriculum 3-18 (2004).

Here we are six years later in 2010 and it’s of interest to reflect on the progress that’s been made. I think two key points that are often missed by people when they set out to attack Curriculum for Excellence are contained within the two complementary sentences highlighted in the opening pargraph, i.e. it set out to keep many aspects of our existing curriculum, whilst recognising that there was also a need to better prepare children for a changing world

On reflection perhaps the most remarkable thing about Curriculum for Excellence in 2010 is that it does does so closely match our aspirations identified from the 2002 National Debate on Education, informed – as it was – by unions, headteachers, local authorities, parents and academics. Yet so much of the criticism which seems to be now directed towards CfE appears to suffer from a form of collective amnesia, where the original imperative and drivers for change have been conveniently forgotten. Not only that but there are a range of myths which are continually perpetuated – without rebuttal – until they almost take hold in our collective conscousness.  An example of such would be the claim that CfE is committed to the destruction of subject specialisms and subject specific content.

As someone who is currently conducting a series of seminars with East Lothian secondary school subject specialists, where I’ve been highlighting the importance of their subject expertise, I’ve been mystified by claims that subject specialisms are being watered down by CfE. I’d actually argue the other way – in that there is a much greater likelihood that young people can study subject areas in real depth instead of the “mile wide inch deep” approach that often characterised the previous curriculum. 

What we now have is an opportunity to provide real scope to meet the needs of all learners.  The other key dimension which I’m seeing in our schools is a growing intellectual ambition to stretch our children in a way that will give our economy a leading edge in the next 20 years.

Where implementation is at its most successful I see a capacity to build upon the traditional strengths of the Scottish system: hard work; a passion for learning; commitment to high standards; outstanding teaching; and one other which has not been in evidence over the last 30 years in our schools – innovation.  This latter point is so ironic given Scotland’s international reputation for invention.

Certainly if we listen to observers from outwith Scotland we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a real lead in world education – yet it’s as if there exists some self destruct mechanism deep in the Scottish psyche which needs to undermine and attack anything which is vaguely aspirational.

These attacks appear to take on three different forms:

The first of these is characterised by those who select a singular aspect of Curriculum for Excellence for which there may be reasonable grounds for informed critique.  However, that  singular point is then extrapolated from the specific to the general and in the process an attack on everything under the banner of CfE – which covers the entire 3-18 programme.

The second form of attack is from those who seek to represent the silent majority.  I would refer to these as those who claim to be courageous enough point out that “the emperor wears no clothes”.  Yet in my experience its actually quite the reverse, in that the real majority are those who support the change.

The final category of attack comes from those who claim to be “agnostic”.  This is probably even more corrosive that the previous two as it is based upon an assumption that we will judge the success of CfE once it has been completed.  Yet the reality is that CfE is a dynamic development and needs to be continually developing if it is to truly meet the needs of children in a society that is in itself ever changing. 

The bottom line here is that no one is suggesting that Curriculum for Excellence is a “fully formed” solution for Scotland’s education system. No one I speak to would suggest that there are not there are many things that need to improve.  Yes – we need more clarity in some areas.  Absolutely we need continuing support for implementation.  But the reality is that I’d rather be where we are now, than where we were in 2000 faced with a moribund curriculum, disconected assessment systems, static levels of atttainment,  disempowered teachers and, most importantly, disengaged learners.  What we must constantly remind ourselves and others is that CfE – for the first time in our history – is tackling the entire curriculum for children and young people aged 3-18.  The scale of the endeavour is mind numbing – which makes it all the more remarkable that such progrees has been made to date.

We stand on an exciting threshold but it needs more people to start to speak up for the positives – without the need to preface their comment with an apology or some qualifying statement. My greatest fear is for the children whom we teach.  For the risk is not so much that Curriculum for Excellence is implemented , but rather that it isn’t implemented.

17 thoughts on “Curriculum for Excellence: Stand up and speak up

  1. I agree.

    CfE is an exciting opportunity to raise standards and engage learners. In order to best prepare our pupils for the world they’re heading for, we have to take this chance to change.

    I also think that the start of you’re last paragraph is important. CfE and its implementation is not perfect, and saying so can be supportive.

    On a more technical note, your link to the Centre for Confidence needs to have the ” for” removed…

  2. As a parent of an east Lothian child it is great to hear your underlying positivity and optimism.
    I have seen a new vigor and life come to my childs teacher and my child due to Curriculum for Excellence.

    We are out here, and listening. Keep up the good work Don.

  3. Hear, hear.
    I was seconded to (then) SEED to work on the Executive’s response to the National Debate. The number of people – individual pupils, parents, teachers, business people, church members, and communities encompassing all aspects of Scottish life – was astonishing; and very exciting. The debate really was about eliciting the opinions of as many as possible: and what’s more, listening to them. The overwhelming feeling we had on attending discussions and reading the submissions was that most people valued our education system very highly while recognising the need for change in the new century.
    At the time Glow and de-cluttering the curriculum were twinkles in the Minster’s eye and AifL was just becoming embedded.
    How far we have travelled since then; and how exciting it is to see Curriculum for Excellence taking shape.
    We always knew it would take time for such changes to become reality. Many of us were impatient. I have been awaiting such a transformation for 30 years. However, I know that for real change – rather than mere novelty – to happen, all involved must feel comfortable and empowered to move forward.
    I think the time is a-coming!

  4. After involving communities so comprehensively in the National Debate, it is surprising that the last group to be brought into the fold of CfE has been parents.
    Now they are being included, sort of, at a time when as Don points out, there is a vocal scepticism about it and coincidentally, teachers themselves are facing and working hard to resolve the emerging tensions, for example between creativity and consistency, and reduced paperwork and accountability.
    It is important that parents, many of whom grew up with a prescriptive and exam-driven system, are shown that the benefits of CfE are real and relevant to their children.

  5. Teacher Support Scotland have recently partnered with Parentline Plus to help improve relations between teachers and parents. We’ll be launching a joint report shortly on our website.

    In a survey we did in 2008, problems with pupils’ parents was given as one of the main causes of difficulties and stress for teachers.

    Most people struggle with a big change, and the introduction of the CfE is certainly that, so it’s not surprising that there is a bit of resistance to it from some parents and teachers.

    As Development Manager for TSS, I’ll be looking at ways we can help with this in the coming year by approaching schools and local authorities to work with them.

  6. I will post a more comprehensive reply but I stopped reading after this sentence. Why? Because I do believe that basic grammar is important:

    “I think a key points that is often missed by people when they set out to attack Curriculum for Excellence are contained within the two complementary sentences I’ve highlighted … “

  7. Peter

    Thanks for that.

    I finished writing this late at night and had moved from identifying one point to seeing two points. I’d tried to make the change but hadn’t proof read properly. It’s really helpful when readers take the time to point out mistakes. Hopefully it’s now corrected.



  8. @Peter really, we can allow a finger slip here and there, especially given what Don is trying to do.

    I came, like many, to education in Scotland from other careers. Attracted by the usual desires to bring the experiences of these careers to the benefit of our children in the only place in the world that allows such diversity, richness and freedom of opportunity to its teachers. aCfE is a magnificent example of such opportunities if it can be implemented well enough. In this age of rapid development and change, there is no excuse not to take full advantage of this.

    aCfE has been stunted by the concordat: robbed of its financial life’s blood by the Local Authorities who stand guilty of missing the point and ducking the responsibility the people expect them to fulfil by delivering the resources necessary for the teachers to implement the experiences which will deliver the four capacities.

    We – the teachers – *will* implement all of the expectations because the new curriculum makes sense to those who can get down and dirty with the detail whilst keeping a weather eye on the dynamics of the children in front of us. Those of us with subject specialism have a particularly rich challenge and opportunity to instil our own enthusiasm for learning about our subjects in the pupils: at the same time, we have the added challenge of doing so alongside the development of numeracy, literacy and self-care and ownership which are essential to drive Scotland’s prosperity.

    Bring it on.

  9. The pointless and entirely ungracious comment above by Peter Morris is a perfect illustration of why the Scottish curriculum had to move away from its long tradition of arid academicism. I would not have been as polite as Don in my reply to him.

  10. It was neither pointless nor ungracious. I was simply being honest which, I believe, is one of the qualities that Don is asking for teachers to exhibit.
    The thought behind the post was that as we are all now openly being asked to take on responsibilities regarding the literacy skills of pupils we need to be ‘on top of our game’ in this respect.
    As for ‘moving away from its long tradition of arid academicism’, I also think it is clear from Don’s post that aCfE is not a re-wrtiing of Scottish pedagogy but an attempt to build on the stengths of the Scottish system.

  11. Let’s not labour the point Peter, I have to say that following Don’s blogging on these key issues in education is of great interest to many in (and out of) education circles. I presume you’re trying to be amusing with your own literacy lapse (‘re-writing’), or was this an error? If it was, then you’re human like the rest of us.

    Let’s stick to the point.

    As a parent of 2 children attending the local primary school I’m very aware of the commitment, creativity and innovative approaches adopted by teachers. As recently as Thursday/Friday last week my elder daughter reported having the most fantastic time staying overnight in school, in role-playing as a WW2 child evacuee. Active learning in a big way, but achieved only through the excellent commitment, creativity and sheer hard work by teachers and others in the school community.

  12. Don
    Thank you for discussing the Curriculum for Excellence on your blog.
    The work that has gone into producing the Curriculum for Excellence documents by many stakeholders listening and trying to move us forward into the 21st century is a very important part of our Scottish Education journey.

    It expresses why I came into education to inspire youngsters to gain confidence, be responsible and effective contributors in society and to be successful in what they want to do in life. Added to this we are now allowed to discuss literacy and numeracy and health and wellbeing as being at the core of learning- fantastic!

    As a subject based educator I see nothing wrong with infusing the Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and experiences into my pedagogy – it is something a good teacher should be doing anyway and I welcome the move away from ‘fragile knowledge’ in an overkill of curriculum content, which is rushed and learnt to get through exams rather than to encourage deeper thinking language and skills.

    May I suggest to those who are worried about this being yet another wide- scale change in our education system that they review present practice, build on and embed good practice such formative assessment in the classroom, peer observation and reflect on research theories on which this curriculum is based by changing a little at a time.

    Change is not easy for anyone and can cause stress if not addressed and carried out correctly. It is important to reassure and build up trust of the classroom teacher by providing proper CPD, financial and other resources for implementing this change along with strong leadership. I find Michael Fullan well worth reading as he describes the potential problems about ‘Planning, Doing and Coping with Change’ in education and suggests that ‘ Success, however, depends on people. Understanding the orientations and working conditions of the main actors in schools and school systems is a prerequisite for planning and coping with educational change effectively.’ In the present climate of financial cut backs it is worth remembering this.

    Reference Fullan, M ( 1989) Planning, Doing and Coping with Change, published in Policies for the Curriculum, Hodder and Stoughton

  13. As this is an interactive forum, and as Don identifies in his blog, there is not a single point that aCfE raises for discussion.
    I think that it is clear that Don believes all opinions need to be listened to if we are to ensure the greatest amount of support possible in meeting the challenge of implementing aCfE.

  14. Pingback: 4000th comment - thanks : Don Ledingham’s Learning Log

  15. I am no-one here, merely a parent with three children currently attending various stages of education in the north of Scotland (I was educated in Fife in the seventies). I have no educational background and have no clever retorts a la Mr Ledingham who would blighthly discount any argument against the C of E (the king may very well be in the altogether though).

    So, here I am, lost in a wilderness of factsheets, oh so ‘helpful’ websites and gushing, self congratulatory literature telling me what a wonderful new dawn is about to burst forth upon our fortunate offspring. We’re truly blessed it would seem.

    And you know what, it might even all be true. After all, what do I know? I’m just a Joe who starts to feel a little uneasy about sweeping changes to the way my children will be prepared to face their adult lives. Especially since it will be they who are the lab rats in this latest piece of experimental social engineering.

    Okay, so I’m being a bit glib and I apologise for that, but this is where I’m coming from: The current curriculum is being scrapped before the new one is fully developed. The reason behind scrapping it seems to hinge on a meeting that took place sometime at the beginning of the millenium where it was decided, somehere between the coffee break and lunch, that the best way to give our children a better education was to change their education so that they would be better educated. The best way to convince people it needed doing, it would seem, was to rubbish the education they were currently recieving to such a degree I’m surprised that we’ve continued to send our children to school at all. The teachers I spoke to at my eldest son’s parent/teacher meeting recently couldn’t help me. I asked some fairly basic questions, none of which they could answer. One lady even said that she would be retiring before its implementation and ‘thank God’. Whether this was an indictment of C of E or just that she wouldn’t have to go through yet another change to the system I never found out. She did use the word ‘marginalsed’ but our time-slot had run out and we had to move on.

    Look, I’m being a bit of a devils advocate here and I really do hope this all works out for the best (and so do my kids although they don’t realise it yet), but I have to say I’m uneasy in the extreme. Its a massive gamble with our children’s future, I do beleive they are being treated as lab rats to a certain extent and I don’t think the way to prepare children for a changing world (of course it only just started changing, been the same for years obviously, C of E will save us all) is to start screwing around with the way they’re taught.

    Could be wrong though, of course.

    Aaaaand rest.

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