What does it mean to make a curriculum?

Here is my newly published article in the GTCS Teaching Scotland magazine. The original can be accessed at https://www.gtcs.org.uk/News/teaching-scotland/teaching-scotland-magazine.aspx

Curriculum should be at the heart of educational practice in schools. And yet, in recent years, curricular questions have to some extent been eclipsed by a narrow focus on standards, outcomes and accountability, which can preclude us from asking educational questions about the practices of schooling. It is, therefore, a cause for celebration that curriculum has once more become a major focus in Scottish schools. In particular, the term ‘curriculum making’ – a rather old concept – has recently re-emerged in educational discourse. But what does this mean? And why does it matter? These questions are raised in our new book, Curriculum Making in Europe: Policy and Practice Within and Across Diverse Contexts, which explores curriculum making through nine country cases studies (Priestley et al., 2021).

To answer these questions, it is first necessary to define what we mean by curriculum. I do not adopt the commonplace idea that the curriculum is merely the booklets or webpages produced by national agencies, or simply the configuration of subjects represented in options columns. Instead, it is more helpful to view the curriculum as the multi-layered social practices, through which education is structured, enacted and evaluated. There are at least three dimensions to this.

  • The notion of curriculum as social practice; something ‘made’ by practitioners and other actors working with each other.
  • The idea that curriculum is made across multiple ‘sites of activity’ within education systems, for example schools, district offices and national agencies. Different enactments of curriculum may not cohere with those in other sites (for example, an implementation gap between policy and practice). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as schools, for instance, adapt policy to meet local needs.
  • The multitude of practices that comprise curriculum. These include: the development of policy frameworks; the selection of knowledge/content; pedagogical approaches; organization of teaching (e.g. timetabling); and the production of resources and infrastructure for supporting curriculum making in schools.

The table below illustrates the range of practices (or activities), the actors who undertake them, and the different sites of activity that form the curricular eco-system.

Site of activityExamples of activityExamples of actors
SupraTransnational curricular discourse generation, policy borrowing and lending; policy learningOECD; World Bank; UNESCO; EU
MacroDevelopment of curriculum policy frameworks; legislation to establish agencies and infrastructureNational governments, curriculum agencies
MesoProduction of guidance; leadership of and support for curriculum making; production of resourcesNational governments; curriculum agencies; district authorities; textbook publishers; curriculum brokers; subject-area counsellors
MicroSchool level curriculum making: programme design; lesson-planningPrincipals; senior leaders; middle leaders; teachers
NanoCurriculum making in classrooms and other learning spaces: pedagogic interactions; curriculum eventsTeachers; students
(source: Priestley et al., 2021, p. 10)

Why is this relevant to current developments in Scotland? I would argue that a lack of systemic understanding has potentially negative effects on practice, including incoherence across different curriculum making sites. As curriculum scholar Michael Connolly (2013, p. ix) reminds us, the curriculum:

… is a complex system involving teachers, students, curricular content, social settings, and all manner of impinging matters ranging from the local to the international. It is a system that needs to be understood systemically. The question is […] how it all works together.

This is important, because actions taken in one part of the system exert effects on other parts of the system – analogous to squeezing a balloon – and these are often unintended and even work counter to curricular policy intentions (e.g. the distorting effects of national qualifications on the BGE). 

Thinking systemically provides clarity about who is responsible for what. This raises questions about the extent to which governments and national agencies should specify content and pedagogy, and the degree to which local actors such as teachers should have autonomy in these matters. Too much regulation – or the wrong type – can stifle innovation and lead to instrumental curriculum making in schools, for example the tick-the-box approaches that have so bedevilled CfE. Conversely, too little regulation can deprive practitioners of the resources needed to be effective curriculum makers. Both approaches diminish teachers’ professional agency.

Many of our case studies in our book clearly illustrate that curriculum support, sitting between schools and government, provides a crucial impetus and support for school-based curriculum making. A key finding is the critical importance of this meso curriculum making in supporting micro (school-level planning) and nano (pedagogy) curriculum making. For example, in Ireland, the Junior Cycle Teams provide this function; in Sweden (expert teachers) and Cyprus (subject counsellors) play a similar role. This points to the potential of the RICs to provide, in the longer term, a substantial resource for supporting schools as they develop the curriculum.

Research shows the inevitability of teachers interpreting and translating – as opposed to merely delivering – the curriculum to meet local needs, even in the most prescriptive ‘teacher-proof’ systems. Well-developed approaches to meso curriculum making, particularly when led by experienced teachers, help ensure that this is a constructive process, and enhance teacher agency. Understanding curriculum making as a complex system is a necessary first step in the establishment of such approaches.


Connelly, F.M. (2013). Foreword. In: Deng, Z., Gopinathan, S. & Lee, C. K. E. (Eds.), Globalization and the Singapore curriculum: From policy to classroom (pp. vii-xii).  Singapore: Springer.

Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (Eds.) (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald.

Is the S5 curriculum narrowing? Evidence from a survey with secondary school leaders offers some answers

By Tracey Peace-Hughes, Camilla Barnett,  Michelle Ritchie, Marina Shapira, and Mark Priestley

Reblogged from https://curriculumproject.stir.ac.uk/2020/12/11/is-s5-curriculum-narrowing/

Recent news articles (see here and here) have reignited concerns that under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) young people are studying fewer subjects and fewer qualifications in their Senior Phase of secondary education in Scotland. These articles are based on data obtained by the Scottish Conservatives via a freedom of information request (FOI). This data appears to show a fall in the number of entries per students in their 5th year.  In response to these figures Jamie Greene, the Scottish Conservatives shadow education secretary, is quoted as saying:

Scottish pupils are being denied opportunities to study the subjects they want. Their future opportunities are being limited by the SNP, and that should be a source of shame for the education secretary.

This phenomenon whereby there is a reduction in the number of subjects studied, and fewer qualifications gained in the Senior Phase of secondary school, is known as curriculum narrowing and is one debate which regularly arises in Scottish education (see here).

Indeed, the current criticisms raised by the Conservative Party are open to challenge. As, the Scottish Government response to the FOI points out that, the figures they provide are based on the number of entries into SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) national qualifications by S5 students and are not a measure of all choices available to young people in each school. Further, Larry Flanagan, General Secretary of the EIS (Scotland’s largest teaching union), is quoted as saying:

Most pupils in S5 will be timetabled for five subject areas, as was the case before the Senior Phase was introduced, and therefore continue to have the same options around subject choice and qualifications as before.

In this article, we further explore these debates, drawing upon empirical evidence from our own research. As part of our Nuffield funded project exploring the impact of CfE, we completed a survey over the summer asking Scottish secondary school leaders to respond to some questions about their school curriculum, curriculum making and the factors influencing curriculum decisions. We received 116 individual responses from secondary schools located across 29 local authorities. This represents about 1/3 of Scottish secondary schools. We are currently analysing this data, but we have started to find some data that runs contrary to the argument of curriculum narrowing in S5 and which largely supports the views of Mr Flanagan.

We asked school leaders ‘what is the maximum number of subjects or courses students can choose to study in S5/S6’ and ‘what is the typical number of subjects or courses students can choose to study in S5/6’. The table below highlights the average numbers reported for each question across the survey responses. Across S5 and S6 the maximum number of subjects studied by students is just over 5 on average (5.5 and 5.3, respectively), with the typical number of subjects studied in S5 remaining at 5 (5.1) on average in S5, and falling to just over 4 (4.4) on average in S6.

 Maximum number of subjects or courses studiedTypical number of subjects or courses studied

When we look at the typical number of subjects and courses studied in S5 and S6 in more detail, all schools responded that 5 or 6 subjects or courses are typically studied in S5 – with 5 subjects or courses the most typical response option (accounting for 88% of schools in our sample). In S6, there was a little more variation with 92% of schools in our sample responding that students typically studied 4 or 5 subjects or courses in S6 – with 4 subjects the most common response option (63%). The minimum reported was 3 (by just 2% of our sample) and the maximum was 6 (6% of our sample).

Our data suggests that in S5, students are, on average, studying the maximum number of subjects or courses available to them. Further, contrary to current debate, as typical numbers of subjects or courses studied in S5 remain at 5 (as seen in the pre-CfE era), this suggests there has not been a curriculum narrowing in this stage of secondary schooling.  In line with historical trends in S6, continuing from pre-CfE, students tend to take fewer subjects, than the maximum on offer to study, in their sixth year of secondary education. So, again, this provides further evidence of little curriculum narrowing in S6 since the implementation of CfE.

We would expect school leaders to have a good understanding of the typical number of subjects taken by the students in their school. So, if according, to school leaders, students are still commonly studying 5 subjects at S5 why does the data in the FOI appear to show a reduction in subjects? And, why does it show that most schools are entering between 3 and 4 subjects per pupil in 2020? After analysing publicly available data and data from our own survey, we believe the answer lies in which courses and qualifications are counted in the analysis.

The FOI data (available here) was requested based on entries into SQA National Qualifications and as pointed out in the Scottish Government response to the request this does not include all courses available to S5 students.

Data includedData not included
Advanced HighersNational Progression Awards
HighersNational Certificates
National 5Personal Development Awards
National 4Wider achievement awards
National 3Foundation Apprenticeships
National 2 
Intermediate 1 
Intermediate 2 
Access 3 
Access 2 
Standard grades 
Skills for Work 

As school leaders reported in our survey that 5th years are typically taking 5 subjects, the lower numbers found on average in the FOI data are likely, at least in part, to be due to the omission of those courses noted in the above table. We know from our survey of school leaders that the majority of Scottish secondary schools (87% of our sample) are offering at least one National Progression Award in the senior phase, 70% are offering at least one Foundation apprenticeship course, 26% are offering at least one National Certificate, 96% are offering at least one Personal Development Award and 98% are offering at least one wider achievement award (e.g., Duke of Edinburgh, Saltire Awards). On average, schools are offering 14.5 of these excluded courses in the senior phase.  Therefore, the exclusion of these courses is likely to skew the FOI data and, if they were included, we can assume the average number of subjects per students would increase overall.

In addition, if the proportion of students taking these omitted awards and courses has increased over time, that could account for the apparent falling number of subjects over time in the FOI data. Data available from the SQA (see here) allows us to consider this.  Taking National Progression Awards as an example (see table below), we can see there has been an increase in the numbers of students taking these across SCQF levels 4-6 between 2015 and 2019. Indeed, SCQF level 6 is the level which a Higher qualification is set.  Similar patterns can be seen across other courses excluded from the FOI data. Therefore, the apparent fall in the number of subjects, taken by S5 students over time, may be partly explained by students choosing to take different kinds of qualifications in their 5th year since the implementation of CfE – and not that they simply take fewer subjects.

LEVEL20152016201720182019PERCENT CHANGE 2018/2019
SCQF Level 276767913181-38%
SCQF Level 3208203288277207-25%
SCQF Level 45,9826,7256,9667,5617,401-2%
SCQF Level 57,1557,9518,3828,68310,05016%
SCQF Level 62,0132,7363,1645,0815,76413%

As we previously noted, in their FOI response, the Scottish Government highlight that subject entry does not account for what level of choice students have, for example, it does not give evidence on the range of subjects available for students to choose from when selecting their subjects.  Nor does it account for localised, and contextualised, curriculum design. These are important issues that we aim to capture in our on-going work.

The issue of curriculum narrowing is an important one that members of our team have considered previously in S4 (Shapira and Priestley, 2018, 2020). So, while there is a notable curriculum narrowing in S4, at National 5 level, the preliminary work we have done so far on this project is suggesting that there is no phenomenon of curriculum narrowing (at least in terms of typical numbers of subjects studied) in S5, and this latest debate has not convinced us either. We do believe much more work is needed on the phenomenon of curriculum narrowing and resulting attainment and transitions, particularly around transition implications of curriculum narrowing in S4. Broad national trends can be useful in understanding this phenomenon – if used with caution. However, trends alone are not enough to fully investigate this important issue. This is why our project has collected new data from school leaders and will be using anonymised data on individual student patterns from the Scottish Longitudinal Study (SLS) alongside the collection of rich qualitative data from selected case study schools in the new year.

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org

Some reflections on the assessment of Scottish National Qualifications

Mark Priestley and Marina Shapira

Inevitably, and in the face of the global pandemic, this week has seen the cancellation of the 2021 examinations for Higher and Advanced Higher Qualifications, following the October decision to cancel the diet for National 5. Perhaps also inevitable has been the strong reaction to this decision in various quarters. For some, the cancellation of exams is seen as a dilution of academic standards. Some have even gone as far to suggest that no exam means no qualification. This latter assertion is of course nonsense; it conflates the qualification itself with the method of assessment.

The issue, of whether exams represent the most rigorous method of assessment, is more credible, albeit contested.  Views range from seeing exams as the gold standard of assessment to the position that exams mainly test how well the candidates are coached to sit them. Proponents of the exam system argue that the exams are an equitable assessment tool, testing all students under exactly the same conditions on the same questions; exams assess how well students work under pressure and without any outside help. Conversely, critics of the exam system argue that they are neither a valid nor a reliable assessment tool: an examination, conducted on a certain day and on a specific chunk of knowledge, does not easily assess a broad range knowledge, competences and skills; and there are many extraneous circumstances that might interfere and affect performance on a test on a given day, with possible life-long consequences for the examinees. 

We suggest that an exam versus coursework dichotomy is unhelpful in any case, and misses the essential point that different forms of assessment test different things. Unlike terminal assessment, continuous assessment, such as coursework, reflects learning in the context of the classroom and requires students to demonstrate a consistent effort over a long period of time. There is evidence that different assessment types do not have similar reliability across different groups of learners. For example, girls tend to perform better in coursework, while boys tend to perform better at standardised tests. There is also evidence that the results of the standardised tests do not reflect academic abilities and are poorer predictors of graduate grades for ethnic minority students. Overall, some research (e.g., of different types of assessments in higher education) concludes that continuous assessment gives practically the same pass/fail rates as a final exam.

A second set of criticisms – with which we have a great deal of sympathy – of the decision to cancel exams is reflected in the observation by Professor Lindsay Paterson that exams are being replaced by exams. This has been made inevitable to some extent by the guidance from SQA which has sought to reduce teacher workload and account for missed study time by removing coursework – as we pointed out in our Rapid Review[1] of the 2020 National Qualifications, this has the effect of reducing the evidence base for continuous assessment, making it more likely that schools will fall back on formal tests. Subsequent guidance for National 5 seems to reinforce this tendency. We believe that the narrowing of assessment to formal testing under controlled conditions shows a lack of imagination and limited understandings across the system as to what constitutes an assessment. Exploring new approaches offers good opportunities to broaden understanding and develop assessment literacy. We emphasise here that when we recommended the development of validated assessments for National Five, in the Rapid Review, we most certainly did not have in mind a series of externally set but internally assessed pencil and paper tests.

The emerging practices based around formal tests will have detrimental effects: on the workload of the teachers who will end up assessing these additional tests, when study leave no longer exists to free up time; and on the students who will be tested to within an inch of their lives. Moreover, there are serious concerns about the validity of these tests; as SQA point out such tests have good predictive ability for exam performance, but one can seriously question their validity for assessing student achievement holistically.

So, what do we advocate? It is first necessary to point to several dangers inherent in any system of assessment. First, local variation across different local authorities seems to be a stumbling block in the development of any system of moderation for a national qualification. The key principle to be adopted here should in our view be ‘developed nationally, but applied locally’. Second, workload should be a key consideration; the potential for a system to become over complex and burdensome is considerable. Our interactions with teachers around Scotland suggest that many existing moderation practices are very bureaucratic and time-consuming, and moreover in areas that are arguably less urgent in the current context (e.g. assessment against BGE CfE levels). Consideration should be given to scaling these back to make space and time for Senior Phase assessment and moderation. We therefore suggest that moderation should be underpinned by clear principles of transparency and proportionality. Third, due attention also needs to be given to the equity, equality and children’s rights implications of the system.  Development should be underpinned from the outset by clear impact assessments for equalities and children’s rights, and we suggest engagement at an early stage of development with CYPCS and EHRC. Finally, isolation of teachers in small schools/departments can impact on the support available for assessment, and may preclude effective moderation. Consideration should be given to creating communities of assessors across and between schools.

We believe that the system can learn from existing practices in universities and FE colleges. There are also historical precedents of proportionate and effective moderation systems from elsewhere in the UK (e.g., GCSE and GNVQ in England and Wales). Typically, rigorous systems include the components listed below. We note again that inter-school working is beneficial, to ensure that teams of markers have a critical mass for peer support.

  1. The development of validated assessments. These do not have to be produced externally; indeed, the process of developing assessments is a useful one for those subsequently making assessment judgements. A typical process would be for assessments to be designed locally, and validated by external verifiers, ensuring both local relevance and a degree of standardisation.
  2. Sense making. Typically, this would involve small teams of markers (prior to the commencement of the assessment process) assessing a small number of items, discussing their judgements and agreeing a standard.
  3. Support. The use of marking buddies is useful, especially for new markers, or those who are isolated in small departments. Problematic assessment decisions can be referred for a second opinion.
  4. Internal verification. Typically, this involves a single person with appropriate subject expertise (from the school or a partner school) cross-marking a small sample of assessments from each marker in a particular subject. Where issues are identified, a closer look can be taken (i.e. more sampling) and cohort grades adjusted if necessary. Internal verification should then be signed off by an examinations officer or other designated person (e.g., head teacher) for each centre. We emphasise here that this is not a process of evidencing each and every assessment decision; instead, it is a system based on trust that the majority of assessors do a good job, and therefore its purpose is to undertake light-touch sampling across a full range of grades, to identify problems and affirm good practice.
  5. External verification. Ideally verifiers should be practising teachers or lecturers with a current role in the subject in question, engendering a sense that this is a peer-led system rather than top-down. This could be established in one of two ways: 1] as a peer-led system where schools appoint externals for their subjects from other schools (analogous to the university external examinations system); or 2] through central recruitment (e.g. by local authorities or SQA) of a cohort of experienced markers, each serving a set number of schools in their subject. External verifiers should have access to the whole set of assessments, from which they choose the sample. We have found in our university external moderation experience that institutions often try to choose which scripts are moderated, but we believe that this provides an insufficient degree of oversight and leaves open the possibility of abuses.
  6. Checking. This might involve statistical analysis of national patterns of attainment against historical trends, to identify anomalies for further checking. This should not be a purely statistical exercise, as has been the case in 2020, but should involve qualitative investigation of anomalous patterns at a centre and subject level, which may require adjustment. In the case of inconsistency at a subject level between historical patterns and the current grade distribution, it may be necessary to examine the grade distribution in detail (i.e., separately As, Bs, Cs, Ds) and to identify the source of the inconsistencies (e.g., there might be too generous marking leading to too many A and/or too harsh marking resulted in too many fails, but the middle range might be absolutely fine, etc.).  Patterns of inconsistencies should be identified and dealt with, but this should be justified (e.g., learning outcomes for A weren’t achieved, so this should be B; not the distribution is different to historical averages, so X number of As will be changed to Bs).  This sort of analysis will provide useful information about centres, where there are declining and/or improving trajectories in attainment.

The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in Scotland’s current system of awarding qualifications – particularly an over-reliance on exams and formal testing, and the fragmented ladder of qualifications approach. The forthcoming OECD review provides a further opportunity to rethink the way we conduct high-stakes assessment. As International Council of Education Advisers member Andy Hargreaves has stated today on Twitter, ‘Scotland cancels final exams for 2021. An opportunity to rethink assessment strategy in perpetuity, perhaps?’ Let’s grasp it with both hands.

[1] https://www.gov.scot/publications/rapid-review-national-qualifications-experience-2020/

TES podcast. Podagogy – Season 9, Episode 2: How to build a school curriculum

The link below is for an article in TES, summarising a conversation between myself and TES journalist Jon Severs on curriculum matters.


The page also contains a link to the podcast of the conversation, which lasts around 45 minutes. The discussion covers a range of issues, including:

  • How we might define a curriculum.
  • Tensions between autonomy and accountability.
  • Curriculum making capacity across the system.
  • The place of knowledge in the curriculum.

The podcast has elicited some lively discussion on social media, mainly constructive. Some responses appear to have been reactions to the title of the article (over which I had no control). It is worth listening to the podcast in full.

What do the PISA results tell us about Scottish education?

Co-authored with Dr Marina Shapira, University of Stirling

This week has seen the triennial publication of the results of the 2018 PISA survey, including the much awaiting country rankings in reading, mathematics and science. In Scotland, these results have been much anticipated, following the ‘PISA shock’ of 2015.

The 2018 results have shown a modest improvement in the reading score – from 493 in 2015 to 504, effectively bringing the country’s performance back to the levels recorded in 2006, 2009 and 2012 (but below earlier scores in 2000 and 2003). Scores in mathematics and science have remained stagnant since 2005, with marginal declines in performance (from 491-489 in maths and from 497 to 490 in science).

Inevitably, these results have been used to score political points in the immediate run-up to the election. Deputy First Minister and Education Cabinet Secretary John Swinney tweeted:

PISA has its limitations but Scotland’s performance in reading has risen sharply. Just 5 countries are now significantly higher than Scotland. The Scottish Attainment Programme started with an emphasis on literacy – the foundation of so much other learning. That is bearing fruit. (3 December 2019)

The reaction to the results has been more negative in the media. Holyrood Magazine stated that ‘Scotland’s score for reading improved in the latest PISA report, returning to a level similar to 2012 after a drop in 2015, but for maths and science there has been a decline in scores with each PISA survey since 2003 for maths and 2006 for science’. According to the Sun:

Pupils are now performing slightly worse than they did before she [Nicola Sturgeon] started improving our school system. And the figures are clear that, despite the up-tick in reading, performance in maths and science has continued to fall.

The Times has been similarly critical, stating that ‘performance levels in science and maths slipped to a record low in the Pisa test’.

So who is right? What do the PISA results tell us about Scotland? Is there really evidence of decline in standards, and can this be attributed to Curriculum for Excellence and the SNP, as many are claiming?

Prior to discussing the results it is important to note that the PISA study is based on a sample[1] and as such the measures it produces have sampling errors and therefore cannot be automatically generalised towards the entire population of 15 year old students in Scotland. Therefore, prior to describing a change in a PISA score in 2018 (compared to the previous years) as an ‘increase’ or a ‘decrease’, it should be first checked whether the change is statistically significant. ‘Statistical significance’ means that measures estimated from a sample can be generalised for the entire research population. We can never know a true population parameter unless the measurement is based on entire population. Yet, we can estimate the risk of making a mistake if we use the sample estimate. Usually 5% is deemed to be an acceptable level of risk. This means that we can be 95% confident that the estimates are true for the population.

Thus, the alleged ‘decrease’ in Maths and Sciences attainment in Scotland compared with 2015 is not statistically significant. In other words, the difference in numbers falls within the margin of error in this sort of survey, and the best that can be said is that there is no change between 2015 and 2018 in these subjects. Moreover, in international comparative terms, these performances fall pretty much in the middle ground in the league table, suggesting an average performance by Scotland. Reading scores have increased from 2015 to 2018, but the difference is small, and also may be a one off fluctuation. To quote the recent UCL/IoE blog on the UK PISA results:

But hold your horses before getting too excited. One good set of results is NOT a trend! And a swing of this size in PISA can simply be a result of changes in methodology.

Thus, the media hype about Scotland’s decline in maths and science is not especially warranted, as the evidence is actually pretty underwhelming. Conversely, claims about boosts in reading are slightly more credible[2]. While the scores have largely remained stable in recent years, there are some interesting nuances in the data. First, the claim that that only 5 countries (Canada, Estonia, Finland, Ireland and Korea) have better score than Scotland in reading is technically true, given the methodological caveats explained above. And yet Scotland is in a company of another 12 countries which have their reading scores in the same confidence interval (the interval where the true population parameter lies). Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that only three countries have reading scores for boys higher than Scotland (10 countries have reading score for boys within the same confidence interval). However, Scotland is doing less well when reading proficiency levels are considered; quite a few counties with average reading scores lower than in Scotland have a higher proportion of students achieving reading proficiency level 5 or 6 (e.g. England. Slovenia, United States, Australia, Norway, Poland. Israel). Another interesting fact is that the socio-economic inequality gradient (the amount of variation in the reading test score explained by the family socio-economic background) in Scotland is lower than the OECD average, but is similar to that in England.

Moreover, there are some interesting trends over time which merit further comment. The first of these concerns the scores over time in reading. We can note that there was a sharp drop in the reading score during the 2000-2006 period and then stable results between 2006 and 2012, a drop in 2015 and then the score bounced back to the level of 2012. If we accept the 2015 result as a fluctuation (which may be a methodological issue), we can safely say that since 2006 there has been little change. Similarly in Maths, we can again see a sharp drop between 2003 and 2006 (well before the introduction of CfE) and similar scores (differences are not statistically significant) since 2006. The big decline in scores took place before the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (and indeed before the period of SNP government), and therefore it is inaccurate to suggest (as many media outlets seem to be doing) that the decline is due to the current curriculum reforms.

Science is the only area where the drop in attainment might be attributed to CfE; here we see stable results between 2006 and 2012, then a sharp drop between 2012 and 2015, and then a slight (but not statistically significant) decline in 2018. It is not clear why this might be the case. We can of course speculate; changes to the specification of content, increased formulaic teaching to the test, lack of accessibility to triple science for the senior phase, and a decline in practical work are possible suspects. However, these are empirical questions, and we simply lack the detailed knowledge of the nature and extent of these trends and their effects. Equally, the phenomena of declining scores in reading and maths between 2000 and 2006 need to be looked into, to increase our understanding of what might have affected attainment. As ever, these issues clearly flag the need for more research.

Another very interesting finding in the data relates to immigrant children. Educational attainment of immigrant children is often considered as an indicator of the success of immigrant integration. Here that news for Scotland is very positive. In reading, second generation immigrant students in Scotland performed higher than or similar to all OECD countries, with only Singapore of the non-OECD countries having a higher performance than Scotland (521). Performance among first generation immigrant students in Scotland was also higher than or similar to all OECD countries (509). The OECD average for second generation immigrant students was 465 and for first generation immigrant students was 440.

In maths, second generation immigrant students in Scotland (512) performed higher than or similar to all OECD countries, with only Singapore and Macao (China) of the non-OECD countries having a higher performance than Scotland. Performance among first generation immigrant students in Scotland (500) was also higher than or similar to all OECD countries in maths. In science, in 2018, second generation immigrant students in Scotland (502) performed higher than or similar to all OECD countries, with only Singapore and Macao (China) of the non-OECD countries having a higher performance than Scotland. Performance among first generation immigrant students in Scotland (509) was also higher than or similar to all OECD countries in science. It is not unusual for immigrant children to perform better than a country’s majority population children in STEM subjects. Yet, the fact that they are able to perform so well in Scotland might offer some insights into why native Scottish children are not doing equally well. One of the reasons could be a lack of interest and motivation, indicating an important area for the policy development.

For the Scottish Government’s analysis of PISA results, see https://www.gov.scot/publications/programme-international-student-assessment-pisa-2018-highlights-scotlands-results/.

[1] In Scotland the study was carried out in 107 randomly selected public funded and independent schools, with about 40 students being randomly selected from each school. Then schools exclude certain students from the sample, if they have additional support needs or language issues. This means that comparison of PISA results with the Government educational performance statistics should be done only with extreme caution, since the latter is produced for ALL students in PUBLICALLY funded schools in Scotland.

[2] Although we note that evidence that this is directly linked to CfE or other interventions such as the Attainment Challenge is limited at best.

Curriculum for Excellence and attainment in National Qualifications

Curriculum for Excellence and attainment in National Qualifications

Marina Shapira, Camilla Barnett, Tracey Peace-Hughes, Mark Priestley and Michelle Ritchie

[Please note – the web version of this post does not include the charts. To see these, download the PDF] Shapira et al

Over the past week, we have witnessed a reigniting of the rancorous debate about qualifications in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. This debate has surfaced periodically since 2015, and has focused on allegedly falling attainment and a narrowing of curriculum choice in the Senior Phase of secondary schooling (e.g. see TES, 2018). The annual publication of qualifications data relating to National Qualifications has tended to stoke the debate, but another factor has been the periodic release of unpublished research by University of Dundee Honorary Professor Jim Scott.

Extensive media coverage has at times assumed the proportions of a moral panic, talking in polemical terms of the ‘crisis’ that is ‘putting the education of a generation of pupils at risk’, and which has spread like ‘a virus’ (The Herald, 2019. Also see: Times Educational Supplement, 2018; The Scotsman, 2019). Most recently further controversy has been sparked by the coverage of a claim in Scott’s latest report that the percentage of those who gain national qualifications in Scotland is going sharply down since the introduction of the new curriculum. Initial coverage in the Telegraph was picked up and broadly disseminated across the media, including The Times, with eye catching headlines ‘Ministers admit curriculum failure as grade hits disadvantaged’ and ‘Failed curriculum’. This has subsequently provided fuel for attacks on government education policy by opposition politicians.

This debate has been of great interest to us, given the focus of our recent publications (Shapira & Priestley, 2018, 2019). We acknowledge the role of independent research in offering a systematic critique of policy and practice in education, and we recognise Scott’s important role in drawing attention to the issue of curriculum narrowing. We also note that we too have been critical of many aspects of CfE – articulation of policy, implementation and particularly the trend towards curriculum narrowing in the senior phase. Nevertheless, we also are cognisant of the dangers of using research to support political agendas, as appears to be the case in the current furore about qualifications. For that reason, it is important to have rigorous independent research to support both policy formation and critique of that policy. One of the arguments that we have been making in our recent work is that there is simply not enough evidence on the impacts of the Curriculum for Excellence.

Scott’s reports have been described, quite rightly, as independent. We do, however, have some concerns about their methodological rigour, and this in turn calls into question the findings and conclusions that are drawn from them. For example, in our own analysis of the attainment data (on the level of secondary schools in Scotland for years 2011-2017) we have not seen evidence that the attainment at National 5 level and Higher level has deteriorated under the new curriculum, as is claimed by Scott. On the contrary, the attainment levels have risen, both in terms of the overall percentage passes (out of total number of entries into qualifications, grades A-C), as well as in terms of percentages of pupils who attained 5 A-C grades at National 5 and Higher levels.

So what is going on? How is it possible to have two quite conflicting interpretations from the same data? We suggest that the issue lies in a lack of robust methodology in the underpinning research; this in turn then produces results – and subsequent claims – that are at best dubious, and which at worst misrepresent the data. We cannot address the full range of claims made in the report, but we offer two examples to illustrate claims which are problematic.

Falling attainment?

Let us first address one of the claims made in the media based on the report.  It says

Looking at national, local authority and individual school data, he found attainment in Scottish national qualification levels three to five in S4 pupils has dropped by at least 32.9% for each level since CfE was introduced in 2013.

How could this profound conclusion be reached based on the figures presented in Scott’s report? The report uses the figures obtained from the Scottish Qualifications Authority official statistics. These show 335,397 passes in 2018-2019, compared to 503,221 passes in 2012-2013.  Simple maths thus suggests that the total number of passes in 2018-19 stand at 66.6% of the total number of passes in 2012-2013.  It does technically mean that there was a 33.3% reduction in passes in year 2018-2019 compared to year 2012-2013. But could we conclude based on that that attainment on National 3-5 levels dropped by 33.3%? The answer is no, and it is necessary to explain why.

When we look at the first two tables reproduced from Scott’s reports, it is not clear what Scott is presenting as ‘Attainment’. The reader is not signposted and without going back to the original SQA data we are unsure whether the figures presented in the column for each year refers to the number of pupils who received a pass at A-C level or whether he is referring to the total number of passes (including passes at D level).  When we do go to the original, publicly available SQA data we find the brief definitions for both ‘Attainment’ and ‘Entries’

  • ‘Attainment’ refers to entries with successful results.
  • ‘Entries’ are the entries for a year (e.g. 1/8/17 – 31/7/18), that is the centre estimates that the learner will complete the award within that time period.

In other words, ‘attainment’ is counted as all exam/coursework passes, across all year groups. Young people who sit multiple qualifications, and pass, are counted multiple times. When we look at the tables available from the SQA, for example, we also see that ‘attainment’ at National 5 level is considered to be a pass at grades A-C. Thus attainment is conceptualised as the total number of qualifications gained in a year across all subjects.

There is a major caveat here. Claiming that the total number of qualifications achieved is not the same as saying that grades have fallen. To claim the former as a fall in attainment is misleading. The reason for this is that a drop in the total number of qualifications achieved is not necessarily evidence of a decline in standards; it may simply be that fewer qualifications are being taken, and there are various factors that need to be considered when analysing this. To simply compare raw numbers from year to year will not account for these.

Over time comparisons are important because they allow us to understand these factors. There are different methodologies for doing such comparisons.  One methodology would be to include a baseline year (or period) and then compare the rest of the data to that baseline year. This is what Scott apparently does in his report. Yet, a selection of the baseline year should be justified and one should make sure that such comparison is meaningful, comparing ‘like with like’, and avoiding spurious comparisons. A good example of unsuitable choice of baseline year would be the one from the former Soviet Union, where the baseline year 1913 was used routinely by the authorities to make comparisons that proved the advances of a planned socialist economy (e.g. we produce more washing machines in 1980 than we produced in 1913). Taking this logic, there is a need to reflect on both demographic issues (e.g. declining school rolls) as well as changes in school practices after the introduction of the new curriculum, as these may explain the total number of passes at National levels 3-5 after the introduction of the CfE.

Prior to the introduction of new national qualifications under the CfE there was a wide-spread practice of double counting of passes at SCQF levels 4 and 5. For example, schools often entered pupils for qualifications simultaneously at both Standard Grade Credit and Standard Grade General to minimise the number of fails and number of pupils who do not receive any qualifications.  The widespread practice of fall-back from Higher (level 6) to Intermediate 2 (level 5) in school year S5 meant that thousands of students were routinely entered for level 5 qualifications when they already had one (Standard Grade Credit) in the same subject from the previous year. Enrolment patterns have thus changed since the introduction of new single track qualifications under CfE, which makes it problematic to directly compare pre-and post-CfE qualification numbers.

Furthermore, there was a continuous reduction in the size of the 12-18 years old cohort  (and especially in the size of the 15-16 year cohort, see charts 1 and 2) therefore a part of reduction in the number of passes is due to the  demographic changes. Taking into account these (and other) changes, the comparison between the total number of passes before and after the introduction of the CfE is essentially meaningless.

Another significant reason for the reduction in the number of qualifications achieved is the narrowing of the secondary curriculum documented in our recent research papers (Shapira & Priestley, 2018, 2019). Whereas previously 8 subjects was the norm for the first tier of qualifications, many schools now offer as few as 5 or 6 subjects at SCQF levels 4/5. The main reduction in the number of subject entries and the number of subject choices took place during from 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 during the transition period from the former to new qualifications. Therefore using the year 2012-2013 as a base line year is simply wrong, because this doesn’t take into account this subject choice reduction (for more detailed discussion of the  reasons behind the curriculum narrowing see our paper: Shapira & Priestley 2019).

Therefore, to meaningfully compare the number of passes over time, we must do so as a proportion of the total number of entrants or awards for each year.  Using the data we can calculate the proportion of students attaining at each level over time, but only if we calculate the proportion at each level using that specific year’s total as a base.  Then we can compare the trends in the size of the proportion of those who achieve qualifications at a certain level. When we do so one can see (Chart 3) that after the introduction of CfE there was a reduction in the proportion of passes on National 3 and National 4 levels but a 15% increase in the proportion of passes  (from 53% in 2011-2012 to 67% in 2018-2019) at National 5 level qualifications (Chart 3). This strongly suggests at attainment is actually rising (in that students in S4 are taking qualifications at a higher level than previously).

Leaving school without qualifications

Let us now address another headline derived from the report – that there is 50% increase in number of people who leave school without qualifications. Looking the figures presented in the report, one can see that technically this is true. The proportion of young people leaving school without qualifications was 2.8% in 2007-8, gradually went down to 1.5%  in 2011-2012 and then gradually increased to 2.2% (which is indeed 50% increase compared with 2011-2012). Of course the evidence that 2.2% of young people left  school without qualifications should be of a great concern, as this is about life chances of 995 young people (the number of young people left school without qualifications in 2012-13 was 1005, reflecting the larger size of the school leaver cohort in that year). Scott’s report clearly identifies an issue of concern that requires action.

Chart 4: Percentage of initial leavers by stage of leaving, 2009/10 to 2017/18

However, to present this as evidence of the failure of CfE is misleading. These figures need to be examined not in isolation, but in relation to other statistics about school leavers. Thus, the Scottish Government published data shows that over the period of the CfE introduction there was also a decrease in the proportion of young people leaving school in S4 (from 12.6% in 2013/14 to 11.3% in 2017/18) and an increase in the proportion of young people leaving school in S5 (from 24.5% in 2013/14 to 25.9% in 2017/18) (see Chart 4). There was also an increase in proportion of young people leaving schools with at least SCQF level 5 or better in literacy (from 63% in 2012-13 to 80% in 2018-19) and numeracy (from 56.6% in 2012-2013 to 70% in 2018-19; Charts 5 and 6)[1]. Finally, a school leaver’s destination is a very important outcome by which curriculum impacts may be accessed. In Chart 7 we present trends in initial (3 months after leaving school) destinations of young people. The trends show that over the period there was an increase of the percentage of young people who made transitions to Higher Education (an increase from about 36% to 41% over the entire period, and an increase from about 38% to 41% after the introduction of CfE), as well as increase in employment (from 18.5% to 22.7% over the entire period). At the same time, the proportion of school leavers who were unemployed and looking for work decreased.

Finally, official Scottish Government data (Chart 7) show that that at levels 4, 5 and 6 attainment gaps between the  most advantaged and most disadvantaged SIMD quintiles getting smaller (see yellow, dark blue and grey lines on the chart).


Overall, we believe that studying the impact the curriculum reform is complex. It needs to consider a broad range of indicators that assess the outcomes of young people. These outcomes include a breadth of education, the range and configuration of subjects they study, the number of A-C passes at National 5 and Higher level qualifications, the overall level and range of qualifications achieved, the transitions made and destination reached after leaving school, and outcomes in the later life (for example occupational outcomes). Not all these outcomes can be studied now, however we should focus our attention on those indicators that are already available and analyse them using rigorous methods to produce an evidence which is comprehensive and reliable. At the same time we need to fill gaps in the data which is currently missing but which could potentially offer insights about the way the curriculum is made in schools, the role of different actors – local authorities, teachers, parents and learners in these processes, and their impacts on young people. Our new two year research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will go some way towards addressing these gaps in Scotland. This comprehensive study will combine an analysis of available administrative data sources at the nuanced level of individual pupils and schools in Scotland with new data collection though social surveys, interviews and focus groups in secondary schools in Scotland. The goal is to understand curriculum making processes, curriculum provision and outcomes in terms of subject choice, attainment and destinations of young people in final phase of secondary education.


Shapira, M. & Priestley, M. (2018). Narrowing the Curriculum? Contemporary trends in provision and attainment in the Scottish Curriculum. Scottish Educational Review, 50[1], 75-107.

Shapira, M. & Priestley, M. (2019). Do schools matter? An exploration of the determinants of   lower secondary school subject choices under the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. Review of Education.

[1] Attainment in literacy and numeracy refers to all students who achieved a pass in relevant units (not full qualifications) which contribute towards attainment in literacy and numeracy at that particular level.


The ‘refreshed’ CfE narrative: what is it for and what will it achieve?

Yesterday saw the release of the new ‘refreshed narrative on Scotland’s Curriculum’ (see https://scotlandscurriculum.scot/). This new initiative has been developed by a working group, comprising a wide range of stakeholders in Scottish education, and reporting to the Curriculum and Assessment Board, in response to the recommendation of the OECD (2015), that CfE needed a simplified narrative to reduce its complexity. While the narrative was well-received by practitioners during an extensive period of consultation in the lead up to its release, the reaction on my Twitter feed has been considerably more mixed – perhaps predictably. Comments included legitimate questions about what the narrative might achieve, along with responses that raised concerns that this does not represent genuine change, only a rearranging of the curricular deckchairs:

What are educators [sic] reflections? Do we still need #CfE2.0 or is the new narrative suffice [sic] to overtake issues identified in helping progress Scottish education?

What difference do we hope a “refreshed narrative” will make?

That is indeed the question. The implication is that, if we had only told the story better, we would have better outcomes. It really raises the concern that we are looking at spin more than substance.

Others were critical about the design, the lack of new content and the conceptualisation of key issues:

Have to say I’m not impressed by the website design and UI, content very familiar.

My favourite bit: ” ( BGE) this includes understanding the world, Scotland’s place in it and the environment, referred to as Learning for Sustainability”. I muse over the environment as if it was something peripheral and ‘other’ to the big world which has Scotland in it…

Some people were more upbeat, seeing the potential of the narrative to facilitate genuine discussions about curriculum change.

Useful tool to have real conversations in school about whether our curriculum fulfils the potential of this narrative.

In the light of this commentary, I think it is useful, as someone who was involved in discussions about the development of the narrative, to address questions about its purpose.

What is the narrative not about?

It is helpful to first establish what the narrative is not about. It is not a revision of CfE, and does not seek to make changes to the curriculum. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have been a critic of aspects of CfE (e.g. https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/the-endless-quest-for-the-holy-grail-of-educational-specification-scotlands-new-assessment-benchmarks/). I continue to maintain that many aspects of the curriculum have been problematic, including the lack of attention to knowledge, its over-specification via the Es and Os and Benchmarks) and the distorting effects of accountability. There is certainly a case for a wholesale review of the curriculum, and this may come in time. Arguably, now is not the right time for this – the last thing Scotland’s over-burdened teaching workforce currently needs is another major round of change. So it is not surprising that the narrative offers nothing new in terms of content. It does, however, offer a very useful resource for making sense of the curriculum, and developing it constructively in schools.

What then is the purpose of the narrative?

One of my key criticisms of CfE to date has been the lack of a coherent framework for the curriculum, in contradistinction to countries like Ireland where the curriculum is set out in a single framework document. Instead, CfE has spanned multiple documents, with multifarious purposes – guidance, justification, and claims about what constitutes good learning. Experience has shown that this has created confusion for practitioners, who have struggled to make sense of the curriculum (see Priestley & Minty, 2013, http://www.scotedreview.org.uk/media/microsites/scottish-educational-review/documents/355.pdf). Profuse guidance has not been accompanied by the sorts of meso-level support for curriculum making that might help practitioners make sense of this guidance in relation to their own practice.

For these reasons, the new narrative is a very welcome development in my view. It has two key purposes:

  1. It is a single point of entry – a one-stop shop – for relevant documentation to guide schools as they develop their curricula.
  2. More important in my view, it offers a process for engaging with CfE. The narrative is structured around why questions, what questions and how questions. It is thus not intended to be a new product, but is instead a process tool for engaging with the curriculum. It is intended to stimulate the sorts of debates that should be ongoing in schools about what education is for, and how it can be best structured. It fits nicely in that sense with the calls of one contributor on my Twitter feed for ‘more on teacher agency’.

My understanding is that the narrative will be launched at the Scottish Learning Festival, and that it will indeed be framed as part of a process of re-engagement with CfE – hopefully one that will be accompanied by resources (including time) to facilitate that re-engagement – rather than a new product to add to the plethora of guidance already out there. This could be very timely as schools currently develop their own curricular rationales, and as the agenda of school empowerment unfolds.


Inter-disciplinary curriculum: why is it so difficult to develop? (part two)

In my previous blog post, I set out some of the reasons why Inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) is advocated in modern curricula, and highlighted some of the problems that have stemmed from this. These include poorly conceptualised policy guidance, and patchy understanding of the nature of inter-disciplinarity, particularly its grounding in disciplinary knowledge. A result of these issues can be poor quality provision that is often difficult to see as inter-disciplinary; more often than not, what we see emerging is multi-disciplinarity with poor connections between discipline-based knowledge, or weakly conceptualised cross-curricular study that does not draw upon more than one discipline. I note here that while there is a general assumption that primaries do IDL, and secondaries do not, this is not necessarily the case. In this second post on this theme, I explore two issues – conceptual development and creating propitious conditions for IDL – both of which are essential if meaningful and coherent inter-disciplinary approaches to curriculum are to become possible. The insights here are equally applicable for primary and secondary education.

Conceptual understanding

At a general level, with wider implications for curriculum making as I have argued elsewhere, practitioners need to develop more expansive concepts of curriculum. This includes, inter alia, viewing curriculum as more than simply content, but instead as the social practices (including pedagogy and assessment) that constitute curriculum making. It involves practitioners taking a holistic view and seeing how their part of the curriculum fits into the whole, to ensure coherence and progression – both vertically across the age range, and horizontally across the breadth of the curriculum.

This, I believe, entails school-level curriculum planning that looks systematically at the content that forms the curriculum. It means shifting from the question of ‘what subjects should we teach?’, instead asking the question ‘what knowledge, skills and attributes are required to become an educated person, capable of thriving in a modern, complex democratic society?’.  As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, this is not a case of simply specifying content; it is instead part of a process of asking what education is for, which should rightly start with consideration of the purposes of education. In the case of Scotland these are set out to some extent in the big ideas – the attributes and capabilities – that form the Four Capacities.

This will probably involve a realisation that the current range of subjects contains (and conceals) considerable gaps in the required knowledge. It requires a shift from seeing subjects as not ends of education, somehow set in stone as was the case in the famous parable of the sabre-tooth curriculum1, but instead viewing them as a means of apportioning curricular content5 (with alternative means available). This means understanding that knowledge is not the same as disciplines, and disciplines are not the same as school subjects.

At an IDL specific level, we need to develop better understandings of concepts that relate to inter-disciplinarity. Part of this lies in the principles that underpin IDL, which might be seen as learning that draws knowledge (substantive/propositional and procedural2) from two or more disciplines in a connected way. Thus, disciplinary knowledge should always be the major foundation of school content, whether the approach is via subjects (based loosely or otherwise on disciplines) or integrated/inter-disciplinary provision.

According to Repko (20073), an inter-disciplinary curriculum should have four key elements:

  • addressing a complex problem or focus question that cannot be resolved by using a single disciplinary approach
  • drawing on insights generated by disciplines, inter-disciplines, or schools of thought, including non-disciplinary knowledge formations
  • integrating insights
  • producing an inter-disciplinary understanding of the problem or question.

It also lies in drawing upon the rich theoretical models that have formed the basis for inter-disciplinary curriculum in other parts of the world. Prominent amongst these is work by James Beane4 and Robin Fogarty5. Fogarty’s work is especially useful for schools seeking to develop a more integrated curriculum, offering a continuum of practice, including:

  • Fragmented – no joint planning or link making between subjects
  • Sequenced – arranging teaching so that related topics are taught concurrently within different subjects (e.g. allowing the study of the First World War in History to coincide with the study of war poetry in English).
  • Shared – joint planning of related disciplines (e.g. identifying commonalities between Science and Geography).
  • Webbed – the use of thematic approaches to bring content from different disciplines together (e.g. an Africa week when all curriculum areas focus on this single theme).
  • Threaded – a cross-curricular approach where big ideas (e.g. citizenship, thinking skills) are coherently planned across the curriculum.
  • Integrated – largely an interdisciplinary organisational approach, which breaks down traditional subject boundaries – either partially (e.g. hybrid subjects) or fully (e.g. the US middle school approach)

And of course, all of the above requires systematic sense making by teachers, not just an articulation of ideas in curricular guidance, which may or may not be read by practitioners.


Enhancing understanding of concepts associated with IDL, amongst those seeking to develop new approaches, is only part of the process, and may actually be a waste of time if such innovation is impeded by formidable barriers. Thus sense making to develop understanding should be accompanied by actions to address the conditions that promote and impede the development of inter-disciplinary curricula. A major issue lies in the ways in which secondary teachers are educated as subject specialists and primary teachers as generalists, as these assumptions constitute a major cultural barrier to IDL. If one accepts the argument, for instance, that IDL is an appropriate approach across the primary/secondary BGE transition phase from P5-S2, then it seems sensible to educate specialist teachers to teach across this phase. This is starting to happen in Scotland, via primary teaching degrees with a specialism, and PGDE/Master’s level programmes that prepare teachers to practice across the primary/secondary transition. More needs to be done here, for example, educating generalists with a subject or domain specialism (e.g. general science, modern languages or social studies) that spans the transition. Such a workforce might help address a lack of specialist teachers in the upper primary years, and an overly fragmented approach in the junior secondary years that currently relies on input from specialists educated in more narrow, discipline-based specialisms. This would of course involve some system-level change, including GTCS accreditation of new ITE routes. Other system level changes might include reconfiguration of qualifications systems to reward the development of IDL; current approaches serve to lock prevailing subject-based provision patterns in place.

Another issue relates to resourcing. Under CfE, there has been a general assumption that schools will make their own curriculum in ways that suit local needs. While I agree in principle with the notion of subsidiarity in curriculum making, this should not mean each school reinventing the wheel in isolation. The predominant approach for CfE has been to provide guidance and exemplification and ask schools to get on with it. That, in my view, is no substitute for national or regional support and resourcing for curriculum making, including curriculum leadership by expert teachers, systematic processes such as professional enquiry and the development of national resources that can be adapted in schools. I note here that the latter approach has a long pedigree in the UK, notably in the work of the Schools Council projects; for example, Schools History Project (including well-established GCSE programmes) is an enduring – and popular – testament to their success.

In summary, curriculum making does not happen in a vacuum. Meaningful IDL requires attention to both conceptual development and the conditions that support emerging practice. This is something that requires thoughtful and systematic leadership and resourcing from the centre as well as school-based curriculum making.


  1. https://users.ugent.be/~mvalcke/OWK_1415/toetsing/thesabertoothcurriculumshor.pdf
  2. Substantive for propositional knowledge refers to knowing that (not simply facts relating to a discipline, to which the content of schooling is often reduced, but also the ways of knowing and ordering that knowledge. Procedural knowledge refers to knowing how.
  3. https://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=googlescholar&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA165912657&sid=googleScholar&asid=4eaedccb. While Repko was writing about Higher Education, his insights are highly applicable for schools.
  4. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XxkBDAAAQBAJ
  5. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/fc84/06745befdf07ad521450d7434df379c72c48.pdf. For more detail, see Fogarty, R. & Pete, B. (2009). How to Integrate the Curricula. Corwin.

Inter-disciplinary curriculum: why is it so difficult to develop? (part one)

Modern curricula advocate inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) as an alternative form of provision to more traditional subject-based delineation of the curriculum, and Scotland is no exception. This post is the first of two on the subject of IDL, or more specifically on curricular approaches – inter-disciplinary curricula – which might promote and foster IDL. This first piece will examine the current state of play in Scotland, highlighting the advantages claimed for IDL and identifying some of the practical approaches enacted in schools. The second post, which will follow in a few days, will explore what needs to be addressed if IDL is to become a practical reality in Scottish schools.

In Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), IDL is one of four specified contexts for learning. According to Education Scotland, in its 2012 CfE Briefing, ‘interdisciplinary learning, sometimes known as interdisciplinary studies, is a planned approach to learning which uses links across different subjects or disciplines to enhance learning’1. The Briefing goes on to offer two approaches to IDL:

  • ‘learning which is planned to develop awareness and understanding of the connections and differences across subjects or curriculum areas.’
  • ‘learning in different subjects or curriculum areas which is used to explore a theme or an issue, meet a challenge, solve a problem or complete a final project.’2

These definitions have been subject to critique for under-conceptualising what is in fact a hugely complex field of practice.

IDL is said to confer a range of benefits. Its many advocates claim that it allows students to make connections across different domains of knowledge more readily than is the case with more fragmented subject-based approaches to provision, examining complex social issues from multiple disciplinary perspectives. It is said to be more relevant to everyday life of young people, an essential part of education according to James Beane (19973), who stated that curriculum should be general, and helpful for young adolescents exploring self and social meanings. IDL is thus claimed to facilitate connections between everyday and disciplinary knowledge. For example, Dowden (2007) stated that its main purpose is to ‘resituate subject matter into relevant and meaningful contexts’4.

Moreover, IDL is firmly back on the political agenda in Scotland, highlighted by the January 2019 Royal Society of Edinburgh conference Interdisciplinary Learning for Excellence. Moreover, many schools are currently re-engaging systematically with the core purposes of CfE, as part of a national imperative to develop curricular rationales. At such a stage of development, it is important that alternative approaches to provision are considered, and better understanding of IDL is an essential component of this, particularly across the key primary-secondary transition phase from years P6-S2.

Yet despite strong advocacy of IDL in national policy, and in spite of widespread support for its principles, there has been little systematic adoption of such approaches in Scotland. Early experimentation with CfE saw some innovation, much of it fairly dubious, and often driven by a fallacious assumption that the new curriculum was replacing a focus on knowledge with an emphasis on skills acquisition, leading in many cases to IDL that ignored a key component – disciplinary knowledge. Some schools introduced the CfE afternoon (or morning), when stray learning outcomes in the new curriculum could be ‘ticked off’ in one fell swoop5. Other schools experimented with variants of the celebrated (possibly apocryphal) sausage themed week6, a ‘rich task’ activity where all subjects would involve study of content related to a particular theme. Many schools introduced hybrid subjects (e.g. social studies, science) combining traditional discipline based subjects such as history and geography, or biology and physics, in an attempt to defragment secondary curriculum in the Broad General Education (BGE – years S1-3) that may involve contact with 15 -20 teachers in a week.

These attempts to introduce IDL, and the national guidance that prompted them, have tended to be characterised by a lack of conceptual clarity about inter-disciplinary approaches, leading in many cases to activities that were not really inter-disciplinary, at best being cross-curricular. Public discourse around IDL uses many different terms interchangeably – for example, cross-curricular, integrated, thematic – which are conceptually distinctive but regularly conflated. Throughout this process, traditionally configured subjects have continued to dominate curricular thinking in most secondary schools. For example, rich tasks were seen as making connections between subjects, often spurious, while hybrid subjects continued to be seen as combining subjects, rather than as integration of knowledge. For instance, social studies has continued to be widely termed social subjects in Scotland, and integration is rare; more common are approaches where the constituent subjects are kept as separate modules, but taught by a single teacher7. It is not surprising that such innovation has tended to be greeted with scepticism by teachers.

So why have these approaches not worked well – and more important, what might be required to make them work? I suggest that action to promote meaningful inter-disciplinary curricula could be usefully developed by addressing the conditions which shape how schools approach the issue of IDL. These fall into two broad areas: conceptual understanding, and cultural/structural issues, including resourcing. The next post in this series will address these points.


    1. https://education.gov.scot/Documents/cfe-briefing-4.pdf
    2. Ibid
    3. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XxkBDAAAQBAJ. Also see this paper by Wall and Leckie – https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1151668.pdf
    4. Cited in Wall & Leckie (2017) – https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1151668.pdf
    5. http://hdl.handle.net/1893/7075
    6. In this example, all subjects related content to sausages. This probably has some relevance in Science (e.g. fat content), but is far more dubious in other subjects (history of sausages, sausages of the world, etc.).
    7. For an example of a Scottish school that has sought to genuinely integrate the social studies, see:  http://hdl.handle.net/1893/15812

Curriculum: concepts and approaches

In my dealings with teachers, school leaders and policy actors, I am often struck by the need for education professionals to develop more nuanced concept maps relating to the curriculum. The following text is material written for our undergraduates, and may be useful/of interest to people working in the field.

What is a curriculum?

Curriculum is a contested and often misunderstood concept. At a simple level, the curriculum simply means a course of study. The word is derived from the Latin word meaning racecourse or race, and has come to mean a general course, conveying the notion of going somewhere in a predefined direction. Indeed, this simple definition is one that is current in many schools, where the curriculum is seen largely as the glossy booklets that contain the content to be taught.

However, such a conception of curriculum is clearly inadequate for understanding the complex processes of schooling in today’s society. A more sophisticated definition is required, and there have been many attempts to provide one. For example, a Dictionary of Education (Rowntree, 1981) offers the following definition:

[Curriculum] can refer to the total structure of ideas and activities developed by an educational institution to meet the learning needs of students, and to achieve desired educational aims. Some people use the term to refer simply to the content of what is being taught. Others include also the teaching and learning methods involved, how students’ attainment is measured and the underlying philosophy of education.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, in line with this more holistic view, states that the curriculum is ‘the totality of all that is planned for children and young people throughout their education’ (Scottish Government, 2008).

Such definitions are helpful in that they provide a broad conception of the education that occurs in schools. However, this sort of broad definition can also be confusing, as the term curriculum comes to mean different things to different people. For these reasons, it is necessary to be clear about the various facets that make up the curriculum, and the ways in which these facets link together and interact in practice. The following terminology helps to make sense of the complexity that is the curriculum.

  • Curriculum – an umbrella term denoting the totality of the learning experience of children and young people in school. Considering the curriculum would thus include the questions of what, how and why listed below, as well as assessment (evaluation).
  • Curriculum purposes – statements of what the curriculum is intended to achieve. These include narrowly defined outcomes or objectives, and more broadly defined aims or goals. This is the why of the curriculum, and is often (but not always) made explicit in official documents that comprise the curriculum framework.
  • Curriculum framework – the documents that outline the structure of the curriculum and its purposes. This also usually includes and the content to be taught – the what of the curriculum.
  • Curriculum provision – the systems and structures established in schools to organise teaching, for example timetabling. This is the how of the curriculum.
  • Pedagogy (often referred to as instruction in the literature, especially American writing) – the teaching strategies and learning activities planned to achieve the aims and fulfil the planned framework. This is also the how of the curriculum.
  • Assessment – the methods used to judge the extent of students’ learning (e.g. tests, homework, observation). Assessment might be used formatively (to provide feedback to learners to inform future learning), summatively (to provide a grade) or evaluatively (to judge whether teaching has been effective).

The relationship between these elements is complex and can be problematic. I provide several examples to illustrate this point:

  • The particular curriculum planning model that is outlined in the framework can exert a major influence on pedagogy. For instance, a framework that emphasises content to be learned might encourage teacher-centred approaches to teaching, whereas a model based on processes and skills may encourage activities that are student-centred.
  • The organisation of provision exerts an effect on pedagogy. For example, inquiry-based methods such as cooperative learning can be difficult if the school day is divided into small teaching blocks, as is the case in most secondary schools.
  • A heavy emphasis on assessment can encourage narrow ‘teach to the test’ approaches

Curriculum planning is fundamentally a political process. In other words, it involves questions of value and is subject to disagreement. Different people have different views about what should be taught (or indeed omitted – the null curriculum). An important question is ‘whose curriculum?’: who is it for, and who chooses? Some believe that content should be chosen to meet children’s needs and/or interests? Others suggest that there are bodies of knowledge that have intrinsic value, and which should be taught to all children. For example, social realists such as Young and Muller (2010) believe that children will be disadvantaged if they are not taught knowledge from the academic disciplines (which are recognised bodies of knowledge developed over generations by scholars using rigorous methods).

These current debates are often reduced to spurious categories: traditional vs. progressive curricula; knowledge vs. skills; subjects vs. interdisciplinary approaches; teacher as sage-on-the-stage vs. teacher as guide-on-the-side, etc. It is far more fruitful to consider these dichotomies in a more nuanced way, for example:

  • Knowledge vs. skills is better seen as curriculum balance between different types of knowledge that are all essential for a balanced education: propositional knowledge (knowing that), procedural knowledge (knowing how) and epistemic knowledge (the approach to inquiry, such as scientific method, that characterise different disciplines).
  • An accomplished teacher will both teach directly and facilitate learning, depending on the purposes of the learning being undertaken.

This in turn raises further questions about the choice and organisation of curriculum content. Should the curriculum be structured around subjects (the prevailing secondary model in Scotland) or themes (a primary school approach)? Should school knowledge focus on ‘learning that’ (propositional knowledge) or ‘learning how’ (skills)? Or is this a false dichotomy? Should there be a core curriculum for all young people, or should there be choice? What about relevance to real life? Or is the school curriculum a sabre-tooth curriculum (Peddiwell, 1939), which rarely changes and drifts out of date as society evolves?

The curriculum operates (or is made) in different ways at different levels:

  • Supra – transnational ideas about education
  • Macro – national level policy intentions
  • Meso – policy guidance (ES, LEA)
  • Micro – school-level curricular practices
  • Nano – classroom interactions

(Thijs & van den Akker, 2009)

Curriculum policy is sometimes referred to as the prescribed curriculum. This is the written curriculum, embodied in a school’s documents, curriculum guides, and programme of studies booklets. It is the ‘official’ curriculum. In most cases, the written curriculum is an instrument of control. Written curricula are essential, but they do not always reflect what is taught. At the level of practice the terms described curriculum, enacted curriculum and received curriculum are sometimes used. The first two terms comprise the taught curriculum – what teachers say they teach, and what they are actually observed to teach. The received curriculum is the ‘bottom line’ curriculum, in other words what the students actually learn. It is the most important curriculum of all; but it is also the one which is most difficult to quantify, and the one over which we have the least control. The described, enacted and received curricula can be very different to the prescribed curriculum, as teachers actively adapt official policy to meet local circumstances, and as learners assimilate and understand what is being taught in very different ways. As can be seen, curriculum is an inexact art form rather than a precise science. (See Thijs & van den Akker, 2009 for a more detailed discussion of this topic.)

A final point to consider concerns what is known as the hidden curriculum. Virtually everything that happens in schools that is not subject to reflection and intention can be seen as part of the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum of any institution is made up of:

  • The non-academic learning promoted by schools, through the attitudes, values, and culture promoted by the school (e.g. enforcement of rules).
  • The physical environment of the school (e.g. a shabby building may encourage vandalism).
  • The social environment of the school (e.g. a culture of bullying or bad behaviour amongst students).
  • The unconscious and unintended teaching that occurs in the classroom (e.g. the teacher who subconsciously but overtly gives preferential treatment to girls may encourage the development of certain behaviours and attitudes amongst both male and female students).

With the above in mind, I offer an alternative definition of curriculum: the multi-layered social practices, including infrastructure, pedagogy and assessment, through which education is structured, enacted and evaluated. This requires attention to:

  • Curriculum for what, by whom … and for whom?
  • The importance of context.
  • Teachers as (professional) curriculum makers: no curriculum development without teacher development (Stenhouse, 1975).
  • The role of system dynamics as barriers and drivers to curriculum making.
  • The perspectives and experiences of traditionally marginalised groups.

Over the last 30 years, curriculum has become a key political issue, as governments around the world have increasingly tried to control what is taught and learned in schools. Arguably this has been unsuccessful, with classroom teaching remaining today much as it was in the past; single teacher delivery, teacher centred methods and passive learners (Elmore, 2004).

Three curriculum planning models

There are a number of distinct approaches – or more accurately starting points – to curriculum planning. It is necessary to be clear on which model is being used to ensure coherence and conceptual clarity. Kelly (1999) offers three archetypal curriculum planning models and suggests that each model is inextricably linked with both underlying purposes and conceptions of knowledge, as well as with pedagogy. Kelly’s models are:

  • Curriculum as content and education as transmission.
  • Curriculum as product and education as instrumental.
  • Curriculum as process and education as development.

It is necessary to stress (again) that these models represent starting points for curriculum planning, rather than mutually exclusive categories; for example, supporters of the process model, would not argue that content is unnecessary or unimportant, simply that the selection of content is a secondary consideration, to be debated once the broad principles of the curriculum have been established.

Curriculum as content and education as transmission

The first of Kelly’s models takes the selection of content as its starting point. There have been systematic attempts to justify curriculum planning based upon choice of content. These can be broadly categorised as philosophical and cultural variants of the content model.

In the 1960s and 1970s the philosophical work of R.S. Peters and Paul Hirst dominated thinking in the UK about the nature and structure of the curriculum. Peters’ Ethics and Education (1966) and Hirst’s Knowledge and the Curriculum (1974) presented a powerful case for a content-based curriculum, comprising forms of knowledge that were regarded as ‘intrinsically worthwhile’. This view seemed to provide a justification for a traditional curriculum structured round ‘disciplines’ or ‘subjects’. Being educated, according to this model, requires initiation into the various forms of knowledge, each of which has their own central organising concepts and characteristic methods of investigation that had been developed over time. Drawing on this work, social realists (e.g. Young and Muller, 2010) have recently suggested that there is a distinction between disciplinary knowledge and everyday knowledge. They suggest that the former should form the basis for the school curriculum, and that the latter is not a matter for schools.

An alternative approach to rationalising choice of content derives from a concern to ensure that the curriculum reflects the culture of society. Denis Lawton, who was influential in policy debate in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s (Lawton, 1975), has suggested that cultural analysis is the starting point for curriculum planning, rather than the analysis of knowledge. According to Lawton, it is necessary to sub-divide culture in a way which is manageable yet meaningful; to achieve this he posited a set of nine cultural invariants – categories or systems that he claimed are universal to all societies. These are the socio-political, economic, communications, rationality, technology, morality, belief, aesthetic, and maturation systems.

At the level of policy, however, selection of content tends to be based upon more mundane considerations. Kelly (1999) has demonstrated that much selection is done for political ends, what he refers to as instrumental selection. Goodson (1995) suggests that content is often proposed in the face of moral panic about national decline. Goodson and Marsh (1996) have documented the ways in which school subjects evolve through various stages to become unquestioned components of the curriculum – fundamentally a socio-political process of turf wars and struggle over resources. Often such selection simply reflects tradition (the subject has always been taught in such a fashion) or is made for pragmatic reasons (for instance the availability of resources).

Curriculum as product and education as instrumental

A second archetype identified by Kelly is the objectives or outcomes model. Objectives and outcomes are clear statements which seek to define what students know or can do as a result of their education. This model has a long and somewhat controversial history, particularly in the USA, with roots in scientific management and behaviourist psychology. In the UK, objectives became a fundamental part of vocational Education and Training. They also form the basis of many national curriculum developments around the world; Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is party defined through hundreds of Experiences and Outcomes, set out in levels to reflect the age and development of children and young people.

Many educationists have criticised attempts to define the developmental process of education in the form of rigid and predefined objectives. Dewey (1938), for instance, talked of the tendency of objectives to change as you approach them, and Kelly (1989) stated that ‘to adopt a …… linear view of teaching and learning, is to have rejected as largely irrelevant the insights offered by studies on child development’. Stenhouse (1975) saw objectives-based curricula as being too narrow in focus, too teacher-centred and insufficiently sensitive to the complexities of learning and the dynamics of the classroom. According to Stenhouse, it is ‘an ends-means model which sets arbitrary horizons to one’s efforts’. Predefinition of objectives is said to deny the validity of the original experience that children bring with them to the classroom, increase the difficulties involved in local curriculum planning, and may assume that the norms of present day society are fixed. Furthermore, such narrowing of learning, especially when objectives are tied to testing and when in turn the results of such tests are used to evaluate schools, has been linked with ‘teaching to the test’ approaches.

Kelly (1999) has noted the tendency for many modern curricula to conflate the content and objectives models, specifying content as objectives. Scotland’s former 5-14 framework can certainly be said to fit this model, with broad content being expressed as objectives that then form the basis of assessment decisions about individual students, data being subsequently used to compare schools’ performance. Kelly refers to such conflation as the mastery model of curriculum.

Curriculum as process and education as development

The process model of curriculum is designed to be flexible and open-ended, rather than pre-determined, maximising the potential for growth and development. Process curricula are based upon intrinsic principles and procedures rather than upon extrinsic objectives. Typically, they are predicated around a view of what an autonomous adult should become as a result of their education and a learning process (often dialogical, inquiry-based and experiential) that helps achieve this state. According to Kelly (1999), a process curriculum is fundamentally a curriculum based upon democratic values, comprising a set of structured activities enabling students to practise citizenship, to develop the capacity to question critically. Typically, teachers using the process approach will discuss and make sense of the core concepts or big ideas of education (the broad goals or purposes) and develop fit-for-purpose practices (content and pedagogy) to realise them.

However, Stenhouse acknowledged two important caveats in relation to the process model. First, much depends on the quality of the teacher:

  • Any process model rests on teacher judgement rather than on teacher direction. It is far more demanding on teachers and thus far more difficult to implement in practice. (Stenhouse, 1975)
  • Second, ‘the process model of curriculum development raises problems for the assessment of student work’ (Stenhouse, 1975). There is tension between the desire to assess objectively through formal, public examinations and the informal, critical, developmental learning that Stenhouse advocates.


The above discussion suggests that the school curriculum is complex, involving considerations of how policy translates into practice and considerable variation in how this happens from school to school. The process of planning and implementing a curriculum is therefore difficult and uncertain. A successful curriculum must pay attention to underlying purposes of education. How, for example does it ensure that young people are socialised into society, while avoiding indoctrination and developing individual capacity for active citizenship? How does it make sure that young people develop skills for work without becoming too focused on narrow training? How does it cover essential content, given that this changes as society changes, without becoming overcrowded? How can it remain relevant in a pluralist society where there are competing demands for different content and differing views as to what is important? Where do decisions about content lie? With the teacher? The politician? Parents? Or students? How does it set the scene for learning that is active and teaching that is inspirational?


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Elmore, R.F. (2004). School Reform from the Inside Out: policy, practice, performance (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Education Press)

Goodson, I.F. (1995). The Making of Curriculum: some collected essays (London, The Falmer Press).

Goodson, I.F. & Marsh, C.J. (1996). Studying School Subjects: a guide (London, The Falmer Press).

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Hirst, P.H. (1993). Education, knowledge and practices. In R. Barrow & P. White (eds.) Essays in honour of Paul Hirst (London, Routledge).

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Scottish Government (2008). Building the Curriculum 3: a framework for learning and teaching (Edinburgh, Scottish Government).

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Young, M. & Muller, J. (2010). Three educational scenarios for the future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45, 11-27.