‘Choice, Attainment and Positive Destinations’: a summary of key findings and their implications

A post by Mark Priestley and Marina Shapira

In this post, my colleague Marina Shapira and I reflect upon the findings of our recently completed study, ‘Choice, Attainment and Positive Destinations: Exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people’. This research explored patterns of curriculum provision in Scottish secondary schools, along with the impact on young people in relation to subject uptake, attainment and transitions within and beyond school. The full public report is available for download here. The findings paint a stark picture of curriculum reform that has diverged considerably from its original aims with significant unintended consequences for young people, teachers and schools, and serious equity concerns. We therefore start this blog post with some reflections on the goals and principles of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), before providing a summary of our main findings and some reflections on the future, as Scotland grapples with the reform agenda following the 2021 OECD review, and subsequent Muir and Hayward reports.

CfE was first proposed in 2004, and subsequently enacted in schools from 2010. Its principles and vision (e.g. see below)were widely praised around the world. Introduced by a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, and subsequently pushed forward by the SNP, the curriculum’s core philosophy and structure long enjoyed all-party support at Holyrood. Despite this consensus on the overall direction of travel, however, the implementation of CfE has been considerably more troubled, and cracks have begun to appear as education has become a political football, and as the Scottish Government and its agencies have come under fire, leading to a series of ‘independent’ reviews, most notably by the OECD in 2015 and 2021.

Criticisms have been leveled at the implementation of CfE by political opponents of the SNP, but also from within the teaching profession and by education scholars. Particular concerns have been raised about the role of assessment in driving learning, curriculum narrowing, and excessive bureaucracy. Critics have pointed to a downgrading of knowledge in the new curriculum, as skills became the primary focus, and to the structure of the curriculum, framed as hundreds of learning outcomes, which encourages tick-box approaches to curriculum making in schools. There has been unhappiness expressed by teachers about the lack of opportunity (and time) to engage meaningfully in collaborative curriculum development, about poor resources, and about the lack of connection between national agencies and teachers.

When evaluating these claims, it is useful to consider the 2004 curriculum review, which aimed to:

  • reduce over-crowding in the curriculum and make learning more enjoyable
  • better connect the various stages of the curriculum from 3 to 18
  • achieve a better balance between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects and include a wider range of experiences
  • make sure that assessment and certification support learning
  • allow more choice to meet the needs of individual young people

(Scottish Executive 2004)

Issues such as these were at the forefront of our thinking when we embarked on our recently completed research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Set in the context of debates about whether the curriculum was narrowing as a result of CfE, and whether this was indeed a problem, the research investigated the nature of curriculum provision in secondary schools in Scotland. We sought to understand the factors influencing curriculum decisions made by pupils and their families, teachers/schools and Local Authorities. We explored the effects of curriculum-making on educational attainment, transitions of young people and other outcomes. The research employed mixed methods, comprising analysis of linked existing datasets (the Scottish Longitudinal Study, administrative education data held by the Scottish Government, and Scotland’s PISA dataset), along with new data generated through a survey of school leaders (completed by a third of Scotland’s secondary schools) and focus groups and interviews with key stakeholders (Local Authorities, school leaders and teachers, young people and their parents). This research thus provides the most comprehensive picture of Scottish secondary school curriculum provision to date).

So, what did we find? Our findings fall into three areas: patterns of provision, explanations for these patterns; and effects. We conclude with some reflections on the implications for the reform process.

In the senior phase, we see an overall reduction in subjects studied and entries for National Qualifications in S4, confirming that the curriculum at this stage has narrowed. There has been steeper decline in enrolments in subjects such as Social Subjects, Expressive Arts and Modern Languages, compared to subjects seen as core curriculum (e.g., Maths and English). There is evidence of social stratification in overall and subject entry patterns in S4, with a steeper decline (e.g., fewer entries, a narrower range of subjects) affecting students from comparatively disadvantaged areas. This is accompanied by a greater likelihood of delayed patterns of entry to SCQF level 5 qualifications (in S5 rather than in S4) and Higher qualifications (in S6 rather than in S5) for students in these schools.

In the earlier Broad General Education (BGE) phase, there is some evidence of innovation (e.g., interdisciplinary learning), but the overall picture is one of traditional subject configurations, to prepare students for senior phase study. In many schools there is considerable fragmentation, with students in many schools seeing 15 or more subject teachers in a typical week, teaching unconnected content. The research suggests that, rather than being driven by the principle of the BGE to provide a broad foundational education for life, this provision is more often than not shaped by a desire to provide a series of taster courses for the senior phase. While such provision is certainly broad, it is difficult to maintain coherence in the face of this fragmentation. Conversely, in some schools, there is evidence of very early subject choice (often as early as the end of S1), as students are channeled into senior phase subjects when they should be experiencing, in accordance with the aims of CfE, a secondary BGE phase covering years S1 to S3.

The research confirmed earlier studies’ findings that the broad purposes and principles of CfE are welcomed by many teachers, but also suggested that these purposes (notably the Four Capacities) are only moderately influential in many schools, as the foundation for curriculum planning. Instead, the research indicates that much curriculum making is driven by external demands for data, especially evidence of raised attainment in National Qualifications. This backwash effect from National Qualifications encourages a culture of performativity, leading to the instrumental selection of content, the development of teaching approaches and the organisation of the curriculum to maximise attainment in the Senior Phase. Examples include the extreme fragmentation of the BGE curriculum mentioned above, as well as the existence of practices which are counter-educational and designed to enhance the school’s attainment statistics. These practices include abolishing low-performing subjects in the Senior Phase (regardless of whether these might be an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum provision), teaching-to-the-test and channelling students into courses where they will gain the best grades, regardless of individuals’ interests. These practices are widely disliked by many in the system, including Directors of Education, but are seen as difficult to mitigate. The above tendencies are exacerbated by teacher shortages in key subjects, notably Technology.

Despite fewer young people entering SCQF level 5 qualifications in S4 since 2013, a higher proportion of those who took up these qualifications have passed. Similarly, the proportion of successful passes of Higher qualifications in S5 has increased since 2014. This could imply that more selective entry into SCQF level 5 qualifications introduced under CfE might have positively impacted the qualifications pass rates and may have also resulted in better pass rates for Higher qualifications.

This must be offset, however, by clear evidence that, in schools with a narrower curriculum, there seem to be negative consequences for young people in relation to wider attainment, transitions to subsequent study in school, and destinations beyond school.  A narrower curriculum in S4 is associated with fewer qualifications attained at SCQF level 5 qualifications in S5, at Higher level qualifications in S5 and at Advanced Higher levels qualifications in S6 (when taking account of demographic and school characteristics). There are also associations between a narrower curriculum in S4 and lower attainment in PISA tests, including measures of global competence, and between a narrower curriculum in S4 and less positive destinations after leaving school, especially in relation to Higher Education entry. When we consider the fact that schools serving disadvantaged areas are more likely to offer a narrower curriculum, this raises serious equity concerns.

In summary, we see a picture of curriculum provision in Scottish secondary schools primarily driven by factors that are not necessarily educational – or in other words to develop in young people the knowledge, skills and attributes necessary for living in an increasingly complex world. Instead, the research provides ample evidence that a great deal of curriculum making is driven by a need to fulfil external demands for the right kinds of data, particularly relating to attainment. In such a culture of performativity, it is difficult to keep educational purposes and principles at the forefront of thinking about the curriculum, with the potential for unintended consequences, such as those described in this article. It is concerning to see evidence that curriculum provision, designed primarily to enhance attainment statistics, can act contrary to the stated goals of CfE and may even be counter-educational (viz. the PISA global competence tests). It is a cause for concern that some curriculum making practices have negative consequences on subsequent attainment and transitions, predominantly affecting young people from less-advantaged backgrounds. These social justice issues are particularly ironic – and alarming – given the government’s policy focus on closing the gap. It is thus imperative that these issues are taken seriously by all stakeholders, as Scotland redesigns the system following the OECD, Muir and Hayward reports.

Some thoughts on Scotland’s education reform agenda; a contribution to the National Discussion on Education

Scotland’s National Discussion on education is now underway, concluding on 5 December 2022. This is intended to engage as many as possible in a conversation about the future directions of Scottish Education, following the 2021 OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence and subsequent Muir report on reforming governance. The purpose of the Discussion is to frame ‘what matters’ in Scottish Education, and to inform subsequent reforms. It is therefore important that as many people as possible – education professionals as well as young people and the wider community – partake in the conversation and have their say. The Discussion can be accessed via https://consult.gov.scot/learning-directorate/other-ways-to-get-involved/.

This short paper, in addition to being published on my blog, is my formal response to the National Discussion. I preface my thoughts with several caveats.

  1. First, it is important that the education reform process is not rushed. While there is undoubted enthusiasm for reform, the last thing that Scotland’s hard-pressed system needs at present is a new wave of innovation overload. The first task is to develop a clear sense of what matters, then to develop a proportionate agenda for reform in the short, medium and long term. It concerns me greatly that we are already proceeding apace with reviews of and reforms to qualifications and governance without considering how changed priorities and visions might require different structures and policies, including curriculum frameworks.
  2. The second caveat is an understanding of curriculum as being much broader than simply selection of content. Instead, I see curriculum as the multi-layered social practices, through which education is structured, enacted and evaluated (Priestley et al., 2021). These practices include the formation of ideas about education, selection of content, the structuring of that content, assessment processes and pedagogic approaches to learning and teaching.
  3. Third, any reforms must be conceived, planned and enacted systemically, rather than undertaken in a piecemeal fashion, in order to avoid the emergence of conflicting practices caused by tensions between and within policies. The former approach allows us to view the interconnections between different practices and anticipate the tensions and unintended consequences that have all too often been the hallmark of the latter approach. I thus structure my arguments in this paper using the layered curriculum making typology outlined in our recent book, Curriculum Making in Europe[i]. This understanding promotes a systemic approach to curriculum making, where curriculum practices across the system are formulated to articulate with one another.
    • Supra curriculum making is the formation of ideas (i.e., ‘what matters in education?’)  that inform the more concrete tasks of curriculum design and development. While supra practices are often transnational in nature (e.g., promulgated by bodies such as the OECD), the National Discussion is certainly supra curriculum making, in that it will set the direction – purposes, principles and values – for subsequent reform.
    • Macro curriculum making is the operationalisation of ideas into policy, for example curriculum frameworks, often undertaken at a national level.
    • Meso curriculum making constitutes the activity that connects practitioners and policy. Often in Scotland, this has taken the form of guidance, but I would argue that active meso curriculum making, involving the activities of people, is more effective. This can take the form of expert teachers working across clusters of schools, teacher networks and capacity-building activities.
    • Micro curriculum making is the development of programmes of study at a school/college/organisation level.
    • Nano curriculum making is found in the day-to-day transactions that occur in classrooms and other educational spaces – that is, pedagogical interactions or curriculum events (Doyle, 1992[ii]).

With the above in mind, I shall briefly consider each layer, offering some thoughts about implications for the reform agenda.


I am pleased that the National Discussion has been placed up front in the process, notwithstanding my concerns expressed above. Clarity about what matters is a necessary precursor to other curriculum making, for example the development of infrastructure and qualifications reform. In this process, there needs to be a clear delineation between the following: purposes of education (i.e., the knowledge, skills and attributes to be developed through education need to be defined in relation to deeper questions of what education is for); educational principles that guide our thinking (e.g., the need to be inclusive); and the methodologies we adopt to achieve our purposes. Consideration of purposes is the best starting point for curriculum making. I would argue that while principles such as inclusion are important, they are not the ends of education in their own right. Similarly, methodologies such as cooperative learning and direct instruction are means of achieving our goals and need to be fit-for-purpose, rather than goals of education.

These are the elements that should frame the National Discussion in the first instance. I am concerned that some decisions that should rightly stem from this conversation appear to have been made already: for example, we seem to have already decided that the Refreshed Narrative[iii] is the starting point for considering reform (it was only ever intended as a ‘refresh’ of the message, rather than a reform of the curriculum); that the Four Capacities will only need tweaking; and that there is no need to reform the Experiences and Outcomes (Es&Os) as the fundamental framing of the curriculum. This leads me to consider macro curriculum making.


There are two aspects I wish to consider here.

  1. Policy will need to be framed carefully to reflect both the National Discussion about what matters and to take into account expertise about curriculum design. Of particular concern is what has been termed the ‘technical form’ of the curriculum (Luke et al. 2012[iv]). I have serious concerns about the apparent dismissal of any need to reform the architecture of CfE, specifically the Es&Os. There is ample evidence of the malign effects of this curriculum framing on practice, for example a tendency to engage in audit approaches to curriculum making in schools to ‘tick off’ the learning outcomes (e.g., Priestley & Minty, 2013[v]). Moreover, I am extremely sceptical that this framing is capable of systematically developing substantive knowledge in the curriculum, a need highlighted by the OECD, as the Es&Os and subsequently developed benchmarks to not provide a coherent conceptual progression framework. In this respect, alternative ‘Big Ideas’ approaches seem to offer some potential[vi].
  2. The likely directions of the post-Muir reforms to governance are a cause for concern. Critics have pointed to the number of senior people from existing agencies – arguably with an interest in maintaining the status quo – involved in the strategic boards tasked with redefining the national agencies. Current trajectories suggest that the reform of these may become to a large extent a rebranding exercise, with the new education agency at risk of becoming a Frankenstein organisation that has far too many disparate functions and an unclear sense of its overarching mission. More meaningful would be an overhaul which reconfigures the governance structures: an independent (from government) and smaller scale agency, incorporating expertise in educational thought and with an entirely strategic function (something like Ireland’s NCCA[vii]); and a series of operational bodies, some of which may be regional – for awarding qualifications, to undertake curriculum leadership etc.

I will refrain here from commenting on the current Hayward review of qualifications, except insofar as to emphasise that it needs to go beyond considering assessment methodology, to encompass the structure of the senior phase – as current approaches comprising a series of two term dashes can lead to formulaic teaching and exert a significant backwash effect on the preceding Broad General Education phase.


This leads us to look at meso curriculum making. The European case studies in our recent book (Priestley et al., 2021) suggest that meso curriculum making is highly significant in successful systems. This includes activities such as shared sense-making (e.g., Finland[viii]), expert curriculum leadership (e.g., Sweden[ix], Cyprus[x]) and practitioner networks (Ireland[xi]). Meso curriculum making is fundamentally about connecting practitioners with policy in a meaningful way, with a focus on developing practice that is fit for purpose. It is about utilising expertise and building additional capacity. And it is about generating and pooling resources that can be used across the system, to avoid schools and other organisations having to reinvent the wheel. My view is that the Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs), if repurposed to focus on support rather than the measurement of performance, could fulfil this function. They need to develop a distinctive identity and sense of purpose that does not simply duplicate Local Authority operations; and they need to become more responsive to – and recognisable by – people in the system than at present, and my suggestion is to make extensive use of experienced practitioners, seconded part time but remaining in their own settings for part of the week, to act as network leaders.


I see two main issues to be addressed in the reform agenda, both of which relate to professional agency (e.g., see Priestley et al., 2015[xii]).

  1. The capacity of people in educational organisations to engage in curriculum making is key. This is partly cultural. There is an urgent need to develop both the conceptual and the practical basis for curriculum making. This can be achieved through the government funded Master’s level study that already occurs across the system, and I would recommend that this be extended. It can also occur through a more systematic use of meso structures such as the RICs for extended professional learning. A great deal can be achieved through engaging practitioners as curriculum makers, in a systematic approach that takes to heart Lawrence Stenhouse’s (1975[xiii]) axiom that there is not curriculum development without teacher development.
  2. The problem is also structural, in that it is about much more than raising individual capacity and changing organisational cultures. We urgently need to address the system issues that stand in the way of practitioners realising the goals of curriculum. This primarily relates, for example, to the ways in which system demands call the tune for young people, schools and teachers. Our soon-to-be-published Nuffield-funded research[xiv] in secondary schools has cast a very bright light on how demands linked to producing the ‘right sort of data’ lead to decisions being made that can be counter-educational. There is a culture of performativity in secondary schools, which produces strong backwash effects as National Qualifications attainment drives curricular decisions as early as S1, in turn leading to a host of problems such as fragmentation, incoherence and curriculum narrowing. Anecdotally, we are also seeing curriculum narrowing in primary schools as a relentless focus on measuring literacy and numeracy leads to what one teacher described to me as the ‘’virtual disappearance’ of other subjects such as expressive arts.


I do not have the space here to write extensively on the pedagogical interactions that form nano curriculum making. I will make, however, one observation here: that the nano curriculum – as the purposeful and meaningful curriculum events through which young people become educated – is arguably the most important curriculum. It makes little sense, therefore, to have a situation where nano curriculum making is shaped – and distorted – by external demands that effectively turned the system on its head. A key finding of our recent Nuffield research is just this – that instead of the system supporting meaningful nano curriculum making, nano curriculum making more often serves the arbitrary demands of a system geared to produce a narrative of success. As Michael Apple noted more than 20 years ago (and matters have deteriorated further since then), there was a ‘subtle shift in emphasis … from student needs to student performance, and from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school’ (Apple 2001, p. 413[xv]). Reforms leading from the National Discussion provide an opportunity to break this destructive and counter-productive cycle in Scotland.

[i] Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald. https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Curriculum-Making-in-Europe/?K=9781838677381 

[ii] Doyle, W. (1992). Curriculum and pedagogy. In P. W. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of research on curriculum (pp. 486–516). New York: Macmillan.

[iii] https://scotlandscurriculum.scot/

[iv] Luke, A., Woods, A., & Weir, K. (2012) Curriculum Design, Equity and the Technical Form of the Curriculum. In:  A. Luke, A. Woods & K. Weir (Eds.), Curriculum, syllabus design and equity: A primer and model (pp. 1-5).  New York, NY: Routledge.

[v] Priestley, M & Minty, S (2013). Curriculum for Excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but..’. Scottish Educational Review, 45[1], 39-52.

[vi] For example, British Columbia. https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/

[vii] National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. https://ncca.ie/en/

[viii] Chapter 10, Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald.

[ix] Chapter 9, Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald.

[x] Chapter 2, Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald.

[xi] Chapter 8, Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald.

[xii] Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[xiii] Stenhouse, L. (1975). An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

[xiv] Shapira, M., Priestley, M., Peace-Hughes, T., Barnett, C. & Ritchie, M. (2022). Choice, Attainment and Positive Destinations: Exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people. University of Stirling/Nuffield Foundation.

[xv] Apple, M.W. (2001). Comparing neo-liberal projects and inequality in education. Comparative Education, 37[4], 409-423.

The Muir Report: reflections and implications

The long-awaited publication of Ken Muir’s report on the agencies that govern Scottish education comes at a time of turmoil in the system, as schools continue to struggle with the impact of the pandemic. Added to the wider set of recommendations for reform stemming from last year’s OECD reports, and the likelihood of significant change to qualifications that will follow the publication of Louise Hayward’s review in December 2022, one has to ask: ‘How on earth will such a stretched system cope with this magnitude of change?’.

However, according to many respondents contributing to the Muir review, the time is ripe for change, and many in the system welcome it. This is a conclusion shared by many of the participants in our ongoing Nuffield-funded research study on curriculum making, and one which I would heartily concur with. I am convinced that change is eminently possible, but that the window for enacting it is limited, and will rapidly close if we do not seize the moment.

The report offers a useful and fairly comprehensive analysis, and should be taken seriously by the government, and by the system more broadly. Recommendations include: the establishment of a new national debate on education, to develop a strong vision for renewing the curriculum; the abolition of SQA; separation of the current accreditation and awarding functions of SQA (the replacement agency would lose the former to avoid potential conflicts of interest); the establishment of a new national agency with oversight of curriculum and assessment to replace (or reform) Education Scotland; and the establishment of an independent inspection body.

The report has elicited a range of responses, from outright cynicism to unbridled enthusiasm. Exponents of the former suggest that the system will readily assimilate the report, leading to at best only cosmetic changes; and to be fair to them, the Scottish Government has a mixed record in this respect. For example, the various initiatives that stemmed from the 2015 OECD review have tended to be piecemeal and fairly superficial, failing to address some of the fundamental issues that continue to impede the development of Curriculum for Excellence (more about these in due course). I share some of these concerns that the reform agenda will focus on maintaining the status quo, driven by the interests of the system; or to cite Ken Muir, simply rearrange the deckchairs. The somewhat muted response of the government, with reservations about, for example, ceding control over curriculum policy to a new agency, only serves to reinforce these sentiments. More is needed if we are to address some of the long-term policy clutter and incoherence which shapes curriculum making in schools.

Muir’s report offers an insightful view of the current system with its various strengths and considerable weaknesses. While affirming the professionalism and expertise that reside in the system, it paints a vivid picture of an over-complex landscape of multiple, often conflicting agencies and policies, combined with poor support for curriculum making; these render the enactment of CfE very difficult for many schools. There are some shocking testimonies about the educational experiences of many young people, which relate not just to contradictions in official curriculum policy and its enactment in schools, but also to the hidden curriculum – the often-unspoken assumptions about what really matters in schools.

The Muir Report suggests that a new agency should encompass not just curriculum and assessment but also learning and teaching. This suggests the perpetuation of a rather dated and narrow view of curriculum as content (or perhaps limited to the official curriculum documents), which has been endemic to practice in Scotland, and which artificially separates out content from other curricular practices such as pedagogy, assessment and provision. I agree with Muir that the new agency needs to be concerned with all of these, but believe that it will remain ineffective and fragmented unless we develop more holistic ways of understanding curriculum. For example, we develop in our recent book the idea of curriculum as the social practices through which education is planned, designed, developed and enacted in schools – content selection, assessment, pedagogy, support infrastructure, provision, etc. This approach allows us to think more systemically about curricular practices in different sites, from policy making, through support and guidance and to curriculum planning and enactment in schools and classrooms. It also allows us to analyze how different policies might act in tension with one another, for example how accountability practices might undermine curriculum aims. This is something identified by Muir in his report.

The report neatly conveys the idea that changing the structures, while necessary, should only be a starting point for more wholesale cultural change. I strongly agree. A rebranding exercise will not fix the endemic problems that exist in the system, but structural change will provide the mechanisms, potentially, to address them, including decluttering the crowded and often incoherent landscape for curriculum making in Scotland.

I note here that the proposed national agency will have a very broad scope, creating the potential for yet another monolithic organization, with rigid hierarchies, demarcations and communication issues. If this happens, then we will have wasted our time.

There is an urgent need to tackle issues of hierarchy, bureaucracy, lack of trust, control from the centre, and the crude accountability and data mechanisms that are associated with current structures and systems. Simply changing the structures will not on its own address these issues. Muir acknowledges this, calling for:

a redistribution of power, influence, and resource within Scottish education to one that reflects the principles of subsidiarity, genuinely empowers teachers and practitioners and where learners’ voices, experiences, perspectives and rights are central to decision making.’ (p.15)

We also need to consider how the RICs might articulate with these new structures. Moreover, what sort of expertise is needed in this agency? Yes, there needs to be a strong practitioner voice, but wider expertise is also needed in my view, for example in educational research and theory. This combination of experience and expertise is manifestly limited in existing agencies, including (as noted by Muir) key government departments:

Ultimately, it is Scottish Government and Ministers who are responsible for all aspects of education policy. However, how those policies are arrived at and what they should contain are felt by many in the system to be something that is closed off to them, lying almost exclusively in the domain of civil servants, many of whom have little or no direct experience of education.’ (p.55)

Muir also notes the revolving door between senior agency and government roles, that can act as an impediment to new thinking.

Building capacity is a key issue – in agencies, in the newly independent inspectorate and across the system more widely. Master’s-level study in Education generally, and curriculum studies specifically, needs to be a key component here, for practitioners and agency staff, expanding expertise and interrupting taken for granted assumptions about education.

A simple question, one which should perhaps be more prominent in underpinning the structural reforms is: ‘To what extent will they enable the development of purposeful educational practice – for example pedagogy – in schools and other settings?’. If we take the view that the important curriculum is that experienced in classrooms and other educational spaces, then we should also take the view that the role of the system is to support this (with particular attention to professional learning), and the agency of staff and children. Too often, the inverse seems to be the case, with activity in schools being organized to support system goals, for example boosting attainment statistics. What matters are the knowledge, skills and attributes we wish to develop through education (purposes), how that is achieved in practice in classrooms, and how the system can best support this. This means being clear about what matters (i.e., the proposed national conversation about purposes and a clear expression of these – a new version of the Four Capacities – in any future curriculum framework). It also means being clear about process (i.e., how purposes are enacted into practice).

We live in interesting times, and pressures on schools are significant at present. Nevertheless, the Muir Report offers an opportunity to break the mould in Scottish education, and we should work to achieve that goal – the result could be a system more grounded in educational purposes and principles, and one that genuinely serves the interests of children and young people.

Some thoughts on qualifications reform in the context of the Stobart report

Today sees the long-awaited publication of Gordon Stobart’s comparative review of international qualifications systems – see https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/upper-secondary-education-student-assessment-in-scotland_d8785ddf-en. This report, written to complement the main OECD review of the Scottish Curriculum, published in June, seeks to develop a broader understanding of issues relevant to qualifications reform, both examining systems that are similar to Scotland (some grounded in the same British tradition of awarding qualifications via terminal examinations) and alternative approaches. The report provides a comparative analysis of nine systems, four situated within the British tradition, with an emphasis on terminal examinations, and five taking alternative approaches.

Stobart’s report makes a number of recommendations related to reconfiguring the current system, including increasing its “resilience” through a greater recourse to continuous school-based assessment and technology-based approaches to assessment, supported by effective national moderation systems. It explores the “decluttering” of the current three-tier approach with its two-term dashes and overloaded diet of examinations, which reduce learning time.  I would suggest that this is dependent on Scotland becoming a system which both places high-trust in its teachers and provides the system resources needed to support this way of working. Stobart also calls for greater levels of consultation with young people, and an increase in the range of vocational qualifications, affording greater parity of esteem with their academic counterparts.

The report points to the social rather than scientific origins of public qualifications systems and their associated assessment methodologies. An important observation to make is that Scotland’s current system is not a natural, God-given phenomenon, nor indeed even the best approach. Stobart suggests that Scotland’s approaches, with their social grounding in the British (Victorian) tradition of the high-stakes exams and multiple tiers/exit points are out of step with the rest of the world in many respects, and implies that Scotland could learn much from the comparative OECD study.

The report repeatedly talks about the notion of the resilient qualifications system, making the point that the UK systems, with their emphasis on terminal examinations, have coped comparatively badly with the pandemic. COVID-19 has thus provided impetus for reform, with one lesson being that systems reliant on continuous, school-based assessment have been more resilient in a time of crisis.

A key question relates to how the senior phase might be aligned better with CfE, which in line with curricular reform worldwide, has placed an emphasis on new skills and domains of knowledge (including digital technology) that are not always readily assessed by exams.

The report also highlights considerable challenges in moving to new systems. These include issues relating to cultural change (often opposition from within the system), the reliability of different forms of assessment and workload. For example, Stobart points to evidence from the 2021 Alternative Certification Model, which suggests that a move to a particular teacher-based assessment approach increased workload, as teachers and young people embarked on a treadmill of mini-exams, marked internally. This illustrates, as Stobart points out, that assessment systems are essentially a compromise between issues of validity, reliability and manageability.

A dependable assessment is one that can reliably give a trustworthy estimate of students’ capabilities. It involves an optimal trade-off between construct validity, reliability, and manageability. A dependable assessment is one that can reliably give a trustworthy estimate of students’ capabilities. It involves an optimal trade-off between construct validity, reliability, and manageability.” (p.8)

The above suggests that school-based assessment will need two developments:

  1. work to enhance teachers’ assessment literacy, thus broadening the assessment methods used, and in particular embedding them more in the day-to-day learning that takes place in classrooms;
  2. and the development of rigorous but manageable moderation systems.

The Stobart report also refers to the increasing use of national qualifications results for school accountability purposes, which has contributed to their lack of alignment with CfE and to tendencies such as formulaic teaching to the test, backwash into the earlier BGE phase (which becomes shaped by the demands of future qualifications) and curriculum narrowing. This is a serious issue that will need to be addressed as part of any programme of qualifications reform; Scotland will need to develop data collection related to attainment that does not exert significant backwash effects on the system, thus encouraging performativity, for example surveys of achievement that sample representative populations.

It seems to me that this report raises three board implications for reform of Scotland’s qualifications system. First, there are implications related to the structure of the qualifications phase. For example, this raises questions about whether a series of steps on a ladder, as in the three-tier Scottish system, is tenable, or whether Scotland should develop a more holistic senior phase allowing longer and/or modular courses and fewer points of assessment. A related issue here is whether there should be a single leaving certificate (even a Baccalaureate), signifying completion of secondary schooling, or single subject certification, as is currently the case across the UK. According to Stobart:

“This raises questions about the nature and purpose of national examinations at age 16 and the message they send. If they are intended to certificate the successful completion of the curriculum in the first five years of secondary school education, a curriculum which now involves a wider range of skills, are there more valid ways of assessing educational progress? Are traditional single-subject examinations outdated at this stage?” (p.17).

National testing at 16 is rare internationally, and where it occurs it is generally much more limited in scope. In New Zealand, a system formerly very similar to Scotland’s three-tier approach, the School Certificate taken at 16 has been abolished. Stobart also points to systems where both vocational and academic qualifications can contribute to a school leaving certificate, addressing issues of parity of esteem between different pathways.

A second implication relates to assessment methodology, for example whether a qualification is based on examinations and formal tests or assessed through a wider range of methods, including portfolios, orals, continuous assessment of course work, and whether qualifications are externally or internally assessed. Of course, these are not simple either/or dichotomies. I do not advocate the total replacement of exams by other forms of assessment. But we need to remember that an exam is simply a means of assessment, not an end in its own right. I do, however, support developing a more eclectic approach that is based upon the principle of fitness-for-purpose – and this will vary from subject to subject. Developments in technology open up new possibilities here. Stobart makes the point – contrary to a much repeated trope that exams are fairer for disadvantaged children – that varied methodologies are more equitable in diverse populations: “The use of more varied formats, for example school-based assessments and practical work in vocational qualifications, represent ways of making qualifications more fit-for-purpose for a more diverse candidature” (p.18). He also reiterates that, in many systems, the bulk of marks constituting a qualification derive from teacher assessment (e.g., Ontario, 70%; Norway, 80%).

A third implication relates to the underpinning model for the qualification. In the case of Scotland, qualifications reform raises the possibility of questioning Scotland’s adherence to the competency-based education and training (CBET) model, originally designed for vocational assessment. This may seem like an academic point, but CBET comes with consequences. For example, its emphasis on mastery has led to the notion that all content needs to be tested, leading to the procession of unit tests that have taken up teaching and learning time in National Qualifications. Demonstrating mastery may well be important when learning to wire a plug, but is arguably less necessary when discussing a topic in History. Indeed, the use of the competency-based model for assessing academic subjects has been the source of much critique over the years

A strong message from the report is that wholesale reforms of systems need to account for the views of teachers, as opposition to reforms imposed on the profession (no matter how well-thought through) is likely to contribute to their failure. Full participation of the profession in qualifications reform would seem to be an essential prerequisite. Winning the hearts and minds of students and parents is also necessary – although existing evidence cited by Stobart suggests already strong support amongst these groups for a shift away from exams. As the Stobart report states:

“Public confidence is vital if an assessment system is to be effective, while a loss of faith in a system will undermine the status and value of qualifications. If they are perceived as unfair, a validity and reliability issue, or unmanageable (by students and teachers), results will not be trusted.” (p.36)

In summary, the Stobart report provides much food for thought. It seeks to dispel a number of assumptions about the existing Scottish system, through comparison with other systems. And it offers a tentative blueprint for reform – arguably much needed – to Scotland’s qualifications system. Of course, the way forward is up to us.

Reframing curriculum making

In our recent book (Priestley et al, 2021), we build upon existing conceptual models or framings of curriculum making, formulated over the past 50 years by eminent scholars such as Goodlad, Doyle, Deng and van den Akker. One of the enduring critiques of these approaches is that they are linear and hierarchical, or can be used in ways that lend themselves to seeing curriculum making as a top-down exercise that percolates down an education system. In developing our own conceptual framing, we have tried to move away from the notion of ‘level’ to towards an idea that curriculum making, as a social practice, occurs in different ‘sites of activity’. This is captured in the diagram below, which appears in chapter one of the book. This framing sees sites of activity as being connected in multiple, and non-linear/hierarchical ways, allowing for movement of actors between sites and for influences to work in multiple directions in an education system. Thus, for example, teachers may be involved in curriculum making in nano, micro, meso and macro sites of activity, as was recently the case in Wales, where some pioneer teachers were involved in day to day curriculum making in schools, in the support activities that span schools and in writing national curriculum specifications.

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

By presenting this as a table, we are of course vulnerable to the same charges that this model is linear and hierarchical, and it has been pointed out to me, quite rightly, that we place students merely in the nano site, suggesting that they are (and perhaps should be) only involved in curriculum making in the classroom. Of course this was not our intention. Indeed, we were cognisant of these risks when writing the book, and so the concluding chapter of the book discusses the issue and presents the conceptual framing differently, as a set of interlocking wheels (below). This, we hope, captures better the idea of curriculum making as a system, whereby actors can move between sites and fulfil different curriculum making functions. Indeed the evidence from the European case studies in the book suggests that this is highly beneficial: for building capacity; for developing shared understanding across systems; and for fostering meaningful curriculum making.


Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald. https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Curriculum-Making-in-Europe/?K=9781838677381

Remaking curriculum making: how should we support curriculum development?

Over the past couple of months, I have spoken at several events (research seminars, Education Scotland’s Excellence in Headship programme, etc.) about ideas in our new book (Priestley et al., 2021), Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Foremost amongst these has been the idea that curriculum is made (and remade) across different sites of activity within education systems. In particular, I have been asked about meso curriculum making, as this is an idea that appears to be unfamiliar to many. In this blog post, I will explore this idea briefly, showing how well-developed meso curriculum making seems to be in some countries, as illustrated in the case studies in our book, a crucial element in successful enactment of curriculum policy into practice. I start with some general thoughts about curriculum making.

Curriculum making

In the book, we draw upon case studies from nine countries to illustrate the idea of curriculum making, to which there are at least three dimensions.

  • The notion of curriculum as social practice; something that is made by practitioners and other actors (e.g. policy developers) working with each other.
  • The multiple layers or sites of education systems, across which curriculum is made in its various forms, for example schools and district offices, policymaking arenas, and national agencies.
  • The various practices which comprise curriculum, including: 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.

These dimensions are captured in the table below.

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

(Priestley et al. 2021)

This view of curriculum strongly emphasises the fact that curriculum making is systemic. As Michael Connolly reminds us, 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.” (Connelly, 2013, p. ix).

Meso curriculum making: ‘strengthening the middle’

Within any education system, meso curriculum making is activity which sits between policy and schools – in other words curriculum making that connects practitioners with policy. At a basic level, meso curriculum making can comprise written guidance on policy, but we saw evidence across Europe of more nuanced and developed activity than the simple provision of glossy booklets and websites. These included processes for sense-making in Finland, and the provision of leadership, networking opportunities and professional learning for schools (e.g. the Subject Counsellor in Cyprus, Junior Cycle Teams in Ireland). These examples are all premised on a view of meso curriculum making as support, whether this be through fostering understanding of new policy that goes beyond slogans and soundbites, or though the facilitation of local curriculum making via leadership or connecting teachers with each other. They do not emphasise externally imposed accountability, but instead focus more on developing teachers’ agency to become curriculum makers.

Misguided curriculum making

The above discussion casts strong doubt on many of the ways in which curriculum policy has come to be made and implemented in recent years in many countries. System complexity readily leads to unintended consequences. Attempts to micro-manage policy implementation, for example through over-specified teacher proof curricula (so-called input regulation), have been shown to be ineffective. Fidelity from policy to practice is a pipe dream, rendered impossible by the inevitable processes of interpretation, mediation, and translation that occur as professionals operationalize curriculum policy across widely different settings.

More recent trends for less prescriptive curricula, accompanied by a rhetoric of schools and teacher autonomy, have ostensibly afforded greater agency in curriculum making. They have, however, often been accompanied a removal of support, and its replacement by output regulation, through performance indicators, evaluative use of attainment data, benchmarking and external scrutiny, which have combined to erode teacher autonomy as effectively as did their more prescriptive predecessors. Moreover, these approaches, with their emphasis on evaluation methodologies, have led to a performative audit culture in our schools, intensive bureaucracy, increased workload, perverse incentives and instrumental decision making.

Curriculum making in Scotland

In Scotland, the development of Curriculum for Excellence has been characterised by much of the above. As a result, the curriculum remains, in my opinion, at best only partially enacted in many schools. Curriculum making has often tended to be driven by imperatives other than the core purposes and values of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). This can be seen in secondary schools, where the crucial S1-3 Broad General Education phase, intended as a foundational stage of education, remains, more often than not, as little more than a fragmented preparation for the senior qualifications phase that follows. It is also visible in primary schools, where a narrow focus on literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing, and STEM seems to be crowding out other subject areas. In my view, this situation is largely a result of two defining characteristics of the Scottish education system. The first is hierarchy. Scotland is most certainly not short of educational ideas and initiatives (or reams of written guidance); but many of these are formulated in offices remote from schools and imposed externally. I have seen plenty of evidence from teachers of examples where innovation has been discouraged because it is seen as straying from official priorities; these include a headteacher instructed by the local authority that curriculum development was not to be on the school plan because the immediate imperative was to raise attainment, and a teacher told that she could not cover a topical subject with a primary class (who had expressed an interest in this) because the priorities were numeracy and literacy. The second characteristic is an over-emphasis on evaluation methodologies, often external to the school, which might be termed ‘evaluationitis’. This can encourage competition rather than collaboration between schools. Even where evaluation is done internally (for example the use of HGIOS 4 indicators), these are often evidenced primarily for an external audience, and become quite performative. And even where there has been a serious attempt to introduce new meso curriculum making structures, Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) established as infrastructure to support the development of practice in schools, this worthy initiative has been captured by the twin blight of hierarchy and evaluationitis; the RICs seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their time and resources generating performance data and evaluating their own initiatives.  In combination, I would argue that these two features of Scottish education have militated against constructive curriculum making in the context of CfE.

Where next?

It is of course easy to criticise without offering alternatives, and I propose to sketch out here how meso curriculum making in Scotland might be reconfigured to make it more effective. This is fundamentally about developing new strategies that are more participative.

“Curriculum making strategies that allow actors to experience themselves as trusted and capable participants in curriculum making and make sense of it together with others are the most effective ones – ‘effective’ meaning here that people relate to the aims of the curriculum they co-construct and feel ownership, and through that are willing to adapt and develop not only curriculum, but also the educational system and settings within which they work” (Alvunger, et al., pp. 288-9).

I would argue that the forthcoming OECD report into the Scottish curriculum, like the ongoing pandemic, will offer an opportunity for reflection on what matters in education – a moment in which sacred cows can be questioned, and where real change may, for a short period, be possible. This will take some courage, as it will mean challenging some of the institutional structures and cultural assumptions that underpin the system; but it is necessary if we are to realise some of the laudable ambitions for the system set out in CfE, and in accompanying policies such as the empowered system, which aspire to maximise teacher agency.

A good start is a refocusing of macro policy making, from a primary focus on the measurement of outputs to a greater emphasis on the design of quality inputs. This will require curriculum policy as conceptual framing rather than prescriptive regulation. I note here that the ‘technical form’ of the curriculum (Luke, et al., 2012) – curriculum framed as ‘measurable’ outputs – exerts particular effects on schools and teacher curriculum making, and consideration should be given to reframing this approach. Greater consideration needs to be given to policies which undermine or act in tension with curriculum goals, especially the evaluative use of data for accountability purposes. Importantly, macro curriculum making includes creating the conditions for curriculum making in different parts of the system – this points to the important role of the government in reconfiguring the infrastructure for meso curriculum making. This will involve the allocation of significant resources – and it also involves affording trust to professionals.

As we indicate in the book, meso curriculum making seems to be a highly significant factor in fostering constructive curriculum making in schools, and this seems to work well when it actively involves teachers. In my view, this activity needs to be completely reconfigured in Scotland, mitigating the effects of hierarchy and evaluationitis. In practice this might mean the following:

  • Revisioning the RICs, so that they cease to be yet another layer in the hierarchy, with performance management functions. Instead, their explicit focus should be on supporting practice, and they should act as a conduit for pooling local authority resources to support curriculum making in schools.
  • Re-structuring the RICS as teacher networks. This means fewer full-time staff, and more recourse to teachers currently working in schools, perhaps through 50/50 school/RIC secondment arrangements. Such teachers would simultaneously have their feet both in the day-to-day world of teaching and have opportunities to develop their capacity as curriculum makers through leadership roles across schools. Importantly, they would seem less remote from schools than the current system of full-time secondees working in Education Scotland and the RICs.

These measures would serve to shift the curriculum making focus from an individual, departmental or single school level activity to one that draws more widely on cooperation across schools, and would do much to address common criticisms; that the curriculum is the responsibility of individuals and that curriculum making often entails reinventing the wheel across multiple settings.

While the structural barriers in the Scottish system would make establishing such an approach difficult, we also currently have opportunities. As I stated previously, the pandemic and OECD review have created a window for change. Moreover, Scotland has developed excellent system capacity in recent years, through the thousands of teachers completing funded Master’s level study; these people are an excellent resource for the system, but we need to start trusting them more, and we need to utilise their expertise in more imaginative ways.

The sort of approach that I envision here has great potential to transform the ways in which we plan, enact and evaluate educational practice. Teacher networks might serve as crucibles for developing subject specific resources across groups of schools and fostering critical system level curriculum development based on cooperation rather than on competition. They may act as a conduit for operating the sorts of national assessment and moderation systems needed if Scotland overhauls its qualifications following the OECD review. Moreover, such networks provide an excellent basis for peer-evaluation of practice, with the potential in the long term to provide an effective replacement for the current system of external inspections. In all three examples, I see opportunities to build the capacity of the system for improvement, and to enhance the agency of teachers as curriculum makers. Emerging evidence suggests that this has been exactly what happened in Wales, where Pioneer Teachers have been involved in macro curriculum policy making, and meso curriculum support and leadership, while continuing to work in schools for part of their time.  In the case of the Welsh Pioneer Teachers, an outcome has been the development of significant curriculum making capacity amongst a sizeable cohort of teachers (Priestley, et al., 2019). This has to be a good thing, with the outcomes of better curriculum making, more meaningful educational experiences for our young people, and ultimately a more coherent education system.


Alvunger, D., Soini, T., Philippou, S. & Priestley, M. (2021). Conclusions: Patterns and trends in curriculum making in Europe. In: M. Priestley, D. Alvunger, S. Philippou. & T. Soini (Eds.), Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts (pp. 273-293). Bingley: Emerald.

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.

Luke, A., Woods, A., & Weir, K. (2012) Curriculum Design, Equity and the Technical Form of the Curriculum. In:  A. Luke, A. Woods & K. Weir (Eds.), Curriculum, syllabus design and equity: A primer and model (pp. 1-5).  New York, NY: Routledge.

Priestley, M., Crick, T. & Hizli Alkan, S. (2019). The co-construction of a national curriculum: the role of teachers as curriculum policy makers in Wales. Paper presented at the ECER conference, 5 September 2019, 3-6 September 2019, Hamburg, Germany.

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

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.