Designing a meaningful BGE: the big challenge facing Scottish secondary schools

One of the major challenges facing Scotland’s secondary schools as they grapple with Curriculum for Excellence is the Broad General Education phase. Known as the BGE (a Dahlesque acronym that conjures up memories for me of reading about large affable giants to small, inquisitive children!), this ‘new’ phase of education seems to be causing all sorts of problems for the planners of the secondary curriculum.

For a start, the BGE challenges the notion, prevalent in Scottish schools, that the early years of secondary education (years S1-2) are dress rehearsals for the important business of sitting and passing exams in subjects in years S3-4 and beyond. The hypothetical secondary teacher might ask ‘how do your pupils know which subjects to choose, if they have not experienced them in the junior part of the secondary school?’. A further related question might be ‘how do we know whether this child is capable of doing this subject at exam level, if we have not seen his/her potential for it in a pre-run?’.  Such views are associated with all sorts of perverse practices. In many schools there is the annual competition for the ‘best’ students. In one department I recently visited (where we had placed a student teacher) I was told that it was not possible to give an S2 class to a student, as these are ‘competitive rotations’ – i.e. classes where the stakes are high for the department, and ‘we do not wish to see a student teacher mucking it up, and the pupils choosing Geography instead of History next year!’. There is a certain inevitability about such ‘game playing’ in a performative environment where teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance via high-stakes use of attainment data – but it does not make it ethically defensible (see Priestley et al. 2012 for a fuller discussion of these issues –

A second area where secondary schools seem to have struggled with the notion of the BGE lies in the ways in which knowledge is organised and conceptualised at this level. Primary schools have an advantage here, albeit one that has been eroded in recent years as the previous 5-14 curriculum has encouraged secondary-like approaches to planning the curriculum. Nevertheless, there is arguably a better fit between the new curriculum and prevailing practices and philosophies in primary schools. There are, I think, several aspects to this. One is a notion of subjects as somehow set in stone, or God-given. And yet a careful reading of educational history shows clearly that subjects are social constructs, loosely based upon, but certainly not the same thing as academic disciplines. For example, James Beane (in his excellent book Curriculum Integration, Designing the Core of Democratic Education) shows clearly how the subjects-based curriculum developed as a response to certain organisational problematics (inspired by Taylorism and Fordism). In a similar fashion, the work of Ivor Goodson documents how subjects have developed, often in an opportunistic manner. For example, he shows how Geography developed by colonising various fields from both the sciences and the humanities. Often, the original rationale for organising knowledge in this way has been lost in the mists of time. Such developments are subject to the politics of powerful subject associations, which lobby to keep their place on the timetable, and are held in place by rigid organisational structures in schools (for example the timetable and the subject department as a political entity). Such structures militate against the development of new ways of organising knowledge. For example, worthwhile developments in Social Studies in England (and it must be stressed that this is the predominant approach to teaching the humanities in the junior years of secondary school in just about every country in the world) were stymied in the 1980/90s by the combined influences of a hostile inspectorate and the subjects focus of the National Curriculum. My experience also suggests that there is often a poor understanding of these issues in secondary schools – a further factor that militates against the development of different ways of organising knowledge in the BGE. (For further reading on this fascinating topic, see below.)

So where do we go from here? What is needed to fully develop the potential of the BGE? I offer the following suggestions:

  • The BGE needs to be promoted more explicitly as being underpinned by a different philosophy to the senior phase. I am told that this is the policy intention, but the explicit message does not seem to be filtering through to schools, where predominant models continue to be based around exam subjects (with a nod in the direction of inter-disciplinarity, through occasional rich tasks and the timetabled complementary CfE slot). This means a rethink of the organisation of knowledge. I would like to see a defragmenting of the curriculum, through for example greater recourse to integrated science and integrated social studies. And I do not mean the one teacher, three subjects modular approaches that have become so common; these simply maintain the subject in a slightly different form. I taught in New Zealand for a number of years, and their junior secondary phase is just as I describe (see for a good example – differences between years 9 and 10 [junior] and years 11-13 [senior]). Students see fewer teachers in the week, teachers have more contact time with classes, and most importantly the curriculum at this stage is not dictated by the looming spectre of the examination in the senior phase.
  • Schools need to overhaul their timetables. Longer periods are needed, as these facilitate the development of the sorts of pedagogy required for CfE. A 20 period week (with long periods) would allow fieldwork to take place during periods, without disrupting other classes, for example. It would allow the development of cooperative learning (something that is often very difficult in a 53 minute period).
  • There needs to be a sustained effort in schools to become familiar with existing models for integrating the curriculum. In too many cases, the inter-disciplinary wheel is reinvented in schools, without reference to what has gone before (often very successful). The reading list below offers some starting points for this process. A Google search would offer much more accessible material – there is a great deal of worthwhile stuff online, often produced by American school boards.
  • And finally, we need to get away from the language of ‘delivery’. I remember coming across the word ‘delivery’, for the first time in this context, in a meeting where new GNVQ courses were being planned in the early 1990s. My Headteacher at the time said: ‘what is this rubbish about delivery – what are we, bloody milkmen or something?’. This metaphor is pervasive, and it has come to frame (and I would argue disable) teachers’ thinking around CfE. A good education is something that is experienced by young people; it is not delivered. Delivery implies that education is a product, rather than a process. It implies transmission, rather than experiential learning. So let’s dump the metaphor, and think about how we design experiences in the BGE phase that will achieve the purposes of CfE – the development of the knowledge and skills required for active, meaningful citizenship in a modern democracy.

Further reading

Beane, J.A. (1997) Curriculum Integration: designing the core of a democratic education (New York, Teachers College Press).

Fogarty, R. (1991) 10 Ways to Integrate the Curriculum, Educational Leadership, 47/2, 61-65.

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

Priestley, M. (2009) Social Studies in Scotland’s school curriculum: a case for a more integrated approach. Education in the North, 17. Online at .

Siskin, L.S. (1994) Realms of Knowledge: academic departments in secondary schools (London, The Falmer Press).

Siskin, L.S. (1995) Subject divisions. In L.S. Siskin & J.W. Little (eds.), The Subjects in Question: departmental organisation and the high school (New York: Teachers College Press).

Siskin, L.S. & Little, J.W. (1995) The Subject department: continuities and critiques. In L.S. Siskin & J.W. Little (eds.), The Subjects in Question: departmental organisation and the high school (New York: Teachers College Press).