Similar curriculum, very different reception

CfE is similar in many respects to other worldwide curriculum development. A notable example is New Zealand’s new National Curriculum. New Zealand has many parallels with Scotland, including being similar in size, and having many remote rural schools. It has puzzled me for some time that the new NZ curriculum has largely received a warm welcome from teachers and the media, the main exception being recent opposition to the imposition of standards-based evaluative assessment. And this is opposed largely because it is seen as acting against the philosophy of the new curriculum.

A report at http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/curriculum/monitoring-and-evaluating-curriculum-implementation-final-evaluation-report-on-the-implementation-of-the-new-zealand-curriculum-20082009/executive-summary provides some clues. There have been difficulties – complexity, difficulties associated with shifting old ways of thinking and a tendency to frame the new in terms of existing practices. However, the new curriculum remains popular, and many schools describe genuine school-based curriculum development, rather than merely auditing existing practice (as has often been the case with CfE).

The above report and conversations with academics working in New Zealand suggest a number of reasons why the NZ curriculum has been more smoothly implemented than CfE:

  • There was systematic engagement at the development phase with teachers and other stakeholders. This has meant that implementation has proceeded on the basis of considerable clarity about purposes and methods, as well as a widespread consensus that the new curriculum is merited.
  • In NZ there was a sense of the curriculum ‘catching up’ with teachers existing ‘constructivist’ approaches, rather than what in Scotland is a less comfortable fit between the curriculum and many teachers existing views about education. In NZ, many teachers see themselves as facilitators of learning, rather than as ‘transmissionist’ deliverers of content. In Scotland, I think the latter views are more prevalent, as is evidenced by widespread talk about ‘delivering’ the curriculum/outcomes/learning.
  • Linked to this, in NZ there were considerable efforts to make the underpinning learning theory explicit – in contrast to CfE where, for example, teachers are exhorted to develop active learning, AifL techniques, etc., without the underpinning theory being considered too deeply.

The question here is: ‘how do we draw on these insights to inform the future development of the curriculum in Scotland?’.

Curriculum for Excellence

Inevitably, the debate about Curriculum for Excellence has become bogged down in technicality. The ongoing ‘will they, or won’t they’ controversy about the new qualifications is obscuring the real issue. This is the question of whether CfE is really about what was optimistically termed transformational change, or whether it is merely about tinkering with the existing system. I suspect we need to get back on message – and quickly.

For me, the big question is about how schools might be facilitated in their engagement with the new curriculum – to see it as an opportunity to transform, rather than as an imposition. This requires time, and resources – and sadly these are in short supply just when they are most needed. Our current research – the ESRC-funded Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change project (RES-000-22-4208) – suggests that teachers are willing to engage fully with CfE and see its potential, but that they are hemmed in by rigid structures and accountability systems that make genuine engagement risky and difficult. Relationships in school – horizontal, collegial structures rather than vertical hierarchies – are a vital component of this. However, in many schools such relationships are difficult to establish and maintain, and even discouraged. See http://www.ioe.stir.ac.uk/events/documents/Teacheragency_AERApaper_final_000.pdf for further details of this.  External systems for accountability are also part of the problem – even more worrying as they are seen as the solution to improve schools. Again, we have published on this topic – see https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/3669 for further detail.