Education Ha Ha: A Look at Curriculum for Excellence

Martin Whitfield | Twitter | Facebook

In what, now seems the dark distant past, the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was launched. Its ambition was to create a coordinated curriculum for young people from 3 years to 18. CfE sought to be transformative, holistic and child centred, a curriculum that could change young people’s lives. The ideals founded and exemplified in the nomenclature, successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. 

CfE replaced the old 5 to 14 Curriculum, where pupil’s ability was identified by a letter. Achieve Level C by P7 and move on to High School. A curriculum that resulted in formatted lessons in maths and language, frequently repeated year on year with little change or development. A curriculum driven by textbooks and end of unit tests.

The new curriculum was conceived in the early 2000s and based on a national conversation and a major report published in 2004. The new curriculum was introduced into schools between 2010 and 2011. At the time the CfE was met with a hope and concern in almost equal measures by professionals, parents and pupils alike. Concerns were raised over the vague outcomes, the lack of clarity in lesson content and how a pupil would achieve a Level, now described as 1, 2, 3 rather than A, B, C,

It offered the potential for a sea change in education, a hope of re-establishing Scottish education as world leading. The change was based on a strong pedagogical foundation and was an active attempt to upset the status quo. A status quo that had been arrived at from inertia of a large system and a vested interest by those at the centre. CfE offered to trust pupils and teacher’s professional judgment. What could possibly go wrong?

The potential of the curriculum was soon dashed on the rocks of centralised government. The need to assess pupils and teachers, to control the results, reduced education back to review by tick box. It is fashionable to blame the lack of resources and there is no doubt that year on year real cuts have damaged education, but responsibility also lies with the higher echelons of control, the SQA, HMI and the Scottish Government and their failure to trust. The need for control crushed the opportunity for change and improvement.

What should have been an open border curriculum has year on year become a tighter and tighter controlled hard border of lessons that must be taught, hours spent doing PE, clear evidence of the teaching of Scottish History and perhaps the greatest failing – the lost opportunity to properly develop the senior phase.

The desire to retain a linear curriculum driven by age and stage replaced the mantra of successful learner as an individual. In 2016 the HMI published in a statement for practitioners “Do not track and record progress against individual Es and O’s.” (Experiences and Outcomes.) Was this taken up? No, tracking is an event that still occurs in most Primary Schools! One of several examples where Local Authority education department behaviour is driven by the need to get schools through the next inspection rather than the needs of the individual pupil.

So where does that leave the CfE in 2021? The Covid pandemic has shone an unflattering light on the senior phase of Scotland’s education system. Last academic year saw the use of an algorithm that penalised the pupil, irrespective of their ability but entirely dependent on their school’s past performance. Only after a national outcry was it replaced by teacher judgment based what the pupil could achieve. This year, no algorithm but a tsunami of exams re-labelled assessments crash down on pupils from Nat 5 upwards.  A grade based on teacher judgment but only as evidenced by these or similar assessments. No scope to reflect the possible achievement of a pupil if they had not endured the nightmare of the last year.

In Primary education – concentration on Health and Wellbeing on pupils return to the classroom but not at the expense of Language and Maths. Room for Art, Music and other Expressive arts pushed out. Areas that most contribute to the wellbeing of individuals.

Can CfE recover? Confidence is all but gone in the label, teachers feel undervalued …again, pupils feel stressed and not listened to… again, parents feel lost … again and society unsure whether to trust the system.

CfE was an opportunity to restructure Scottish education, to empower pupils and teachers to invest in their learning, to create successful learners and confident individuals. Based on sound pedagogy a chance to unleash the futures potential. 

Curriculum for Excellence has become almost a bad phrase. Perhaps it is time to redraft the future. To decide whether we want a centrally driven education system, founded on the use of tick box exercises to reflect a young person’s achievement or whether we want to embrace again confident individuals, successful learners so that in future we have responsible citizens and more than effective contributors but society leaders. The problem may not be with the name but whether the centre will trust those in the system.

Martin lives in Prestonpans with his wife and two sons. After a career as a solicitor, he retrained as a teacher and worked at Prestonpans Primary School from 2007 until his election to the House of Commons in June 2017. He was elected as one of the MSPs for South Scotland on 6 May 2021.

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