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 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.

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

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

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

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.


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

[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.