It has been fascinating to watch the recent media coverage of the debates about the increase in paperwork and bureaucratisation within Curriculum for Excellence. First, we saw a piece in Times Educational Supplement, reporting that Ken Muir of Education Scotland was suggesting that CfE has become weighed down by excessive paperwork ( Now, Education Secretary Mike Russell has weighed into the debate, saying that CfE should engender “clarity” and that schools, head teachers and councils should not distort the new curriculum with “a smokescreen of bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork” (see the Scotsman ).  Accompanying this media coverage of the bureaucratic demands of CfE on teachers, was an interesting letter in the Herald, presumably from a teacher, saying that CfE has also become a relentless paper chase for pupils (

I agree wholeheartedly with these observations, and am saddened that such a promising policy is not yet living up to its potential.  However, it is unhelpful to blame teachers. Instead we should be asking why we have come to such a situation, and how we might remedy it.

Some of these themes emerged in our research. We found, for example, that many primary teachers clearly perceived curriculum development to consist mainly of assessing, recording and reporting against outcomes. Such views are likely to derive from assessment driven philosophies encouraged under the former 5-14 system, but have clearly been magnified by the trajectory of CfE as a policy. I believe that part of this derives from a fundamental design fault in CfE, highlighted in 2010 by Walter Humes and me. This relates to the structure of CfE, an inherently developmental curriculum framed initially around big ideas and an aspiration to encourage open practice, but then articulated as pre-specified outcomes. Such policy encourages, in my view, a convergent approach to curriculum development, as many schools seek to tick off the outcomes (see

This tension has, I believe, been exacerbated by the subsequent development of CfE since the early days. Early documentation demonstrated a sensitivity towards the dangers of assessment driving the curriculum, however more recent developments reveal a shift in emphasis, making clear an expectation that the Es & Os are assessment standards. The 2007 overarching cover paper for the draft Es & Os was explicit that this should not be the case, stating that they ‘are not designed as assessment criteria in their own right’. However, subsequently, this situation has changed, BTC5 (2010) describing them as ‘standards for assessment’. It is difficult, therefore, to see how they are different to the previous 5-14 attainment targets, which came to be used primarily for assessment purposes. The situation has been further exacerbated by the decision in many local authorities to assess against not only each E & O, but to utilise a three level scale within each level: 1] Developing; 2] Consolidating; and 3] Secure.  Such developments reveal a continued preoccupation with assessment, recording and reporting, which potentially both increases teacher workload and limits the aspirational scope of CfE to broaden education through school-based innovation. And of course, schools and teachers continue to be subject to accountability systems that value attainment above other measures of success – inspections, local authority audits, comparator league tables, etc.

So, is it surprising that CfE has become bogged down in paperwork and bureaucracy? I would welcome response to this question (as comments replying to this post).


17 thoughts on “CfE and bureaucracy

  1. I had predicted 8 years ago that once SQA got involved……all bets would be off. The culture of accountability, tracking, interim reporting (by Jove that has exploded like an Improvised Educational Device!) and assessment requires a back -covering web of assessment of all experiences, outcomes and skills. The use, by HMIE of ‘entitlement’ in relation to CfE EOs is also discouraging as we now feel that every EO must be covered (to what degree? to what level? to what end!) in a very restricted timescale. Sadly now, there are two cultures developing: a. a surface/superficial visitation to every EO and skill at as many levels as possible and b. teachers who view the expectations as extremely unrealistic and so they now ignore the impossible, adapt the improbable and stick to the pragmatic. Neither has been planned for.

  2. The man who inspired me to be a teacher ( @davidmiller_UK ) told me years ago that he thought CfE risked turning teachers into auditors. I didn’t really understand at the time but I certainly do now.
    The entire philosophy of CfE is being undermined by a crippling fear that is driving departments, schools and local authorities to demand more and more paperwork in a desperate attempt to avoid ‘failure’ – instead, we should be seizing the opportunities provided by what is, in essence, a remarkably forward-thinking philosophy.

    If CfE fails the fault will lie with the bureaucrats, not front-line teachers.

  3. Any system, however constituted, must be universally understood by those charged with making it work effectively and CfE does not appear to meet this essential criteria. And without immediately contradicting myself, is that the route of the problem? Is it, in fact, a system, or simply a utopian aspiration to solve the perennial disagreement on what constitutes appropriate pedagogical success?
    Teachers widely agree that testing is not the answer; however, we are continually bombarded to provide measurements that consist of purely quantitative evidence. ‘Measuring what we value’ and Sir Ken’s expounding on ‘creativity’, appear to have done little to make the progress in the ‘21st century’ that so many of us seek to agree as critical.
    You have spoken very well and often regarding ‘teacher agency’, however the extreme reluctance to follow any path that is not packaged into the antithesis of a better led and more collegiate arrangement is profoundly worrying.

  4. Great post as ever Mark.

    Whilst the powers that be have played a large part in creating the situation you describe, I do feel it’s only part of the truth. The reality is that to some extent the profession has also played a part in creating this. In my time on secondment I listened to a great many teachers who demanded much more in the way of prescription and attainment levels.

    Developing/Consolidating/Secure were created partly to address what many teachers and schools were already doing. D/C/S were deliberately written to be poor attainment grades to try and stop them from being used in that way, but it hasn’t worked. I’ve quite often found that it’s actually teachers who want to subdivide them into further levels!

    Teachers might loathe the paperwork that goes with the monster, but in my experience the monster was created partly in response to the complaints of many teachers. Ultimately though I suppose we could probably still lay the blame back at the top for not managing the change well through engaging the profession more deeply and meaningfully in the change…

    1. I would tend to agree here in some respects. We certainly found evidence in our research of some teachers needing the security blanket of attainment levels, and this was especially true amongst primary teachers. In this case, people were telling us that the E&Os are too vague and that we need more precision. However, one should ask why people think this way. One might point to performative cultures in schooling that encourage risk-averse behaviour (evidencing your practice is one logical response here). One might also point to a deprofessionalisation of teachers, highlighted in much research literature (see, for example, Stephen Ball). So while it is possible to say that teachers contribute to the problem, it is also slightly unfair ro blame them, given the pressures and risks of the job.

      1. Fearghal – reading back, am I too harsh on you personally? Hope not. Only commenting from my perspective as you are on yours.

      2. Don’t worry about me Paul…I developed a very thick skin as an LA DO as I’m sure you can imagine. I appreciate the concern though. I know what I’m saying here wont be popular, but it’s important we can manage an open and respectful professional debate such as this.


        P.S. We teach S3 as part of the BGE as intended.

    1. It is being dumped. As a parent, my daughter’s reports are identical to her friends and all say nothing.

  5. The following is an anonymous comment from a teacher who does not feel comfortable going public.

    Increasingly we’re finding there are two main problems
    with CfE.


    Implementation is hurried, inefficient and the support offered to teachers
    is ridiculous. We have LAs claiming all is well, that they are ready and
    willing but this is blatantly false; primaries have been given resources and
    additional help from QIOs etc but secondary schools have been expected to
    sort things and prepare assessment materials on their own. Currently I am
    swapping resources for Nat 4/5 with many other schools who
    are trying to create, find and moderate possible Nat 4/5 resources. We are
    told time and again that we will be given assessment materials; the so
    called exam papers were issued and suddenly became ‘in the style of’ when
    they realised how low the bar had been set in terms of cut off scores and
    marks awarded for questions. Currently there are hundreds of teachers in
    hundreds of schools preparing Nat 4/5 resources for all subjects and all are
    having to swap or beg stuff, or create stuff which is then eagerly grabbed
    by other schools. We should be preparing to deliver the
    course not how to assess it etc. We will also end up with ‘good’ schools
    having good resources that are pitched at the right level for assessment,
    but other schools will have nothing sorted yet and kids will be leaving with
    nothing. There is huge duplication of effort going on here.

    It has been decided in mine and other local schools exactly what
    we are to teach. So much for choice, support and empowering
    teachers. 😎


    In many schools, mine and others in the same area as well as the one next
    door, there are horror stories of people being sent home with stress having
    had NO development time or days off timetable to prepare. We’ve seen SLT/SMT
    bully staff and the problem now arises that they’re trying to “control the
    narrative” so that parents think everything is sorted and ready.

    We’ve been told to (a) pass EVERYTHING we write to external agencies,
    parents etc via the SLT/SMT. EVERYTHING to be discussed with parents
    requires permission first from SLT/SMT. Teachers are not allowed to email,
    phone or reply to emails/phone calls from parents even when they’re simply
    asking about their child’s grade and how to improve etc.

    Sorry…can’t go on or I’d be here for years. Suffice to say we’ve lost
    members of staff to stress so far, others are close to breaking and
    many of us are in despair at the inability of SLT/SMT to get a grip and let
    us teach whilst they support us and the parents. I could cope with all this
    if I thought it was just my school but it’s not.

    Far too many ‘Leaders’ are using CfE to slap down teachers especially the
    older ones who are struggling to keep up with CfE, use of IT etc etc. I
    feel so sorry for some of them who give so much, try so hard and get slapped
    down all the time.

    1. SQA and HMIE’s job. The greatest scam ever was the imposition of an embedded and all-emcompassing self-evaluation culture…i.e. do HMIE’s job for them before they arrive!

  6. Interesting debate on here. I understand Fearghal’s comment about primary teachers as my sister in law is one and says that they are being swamped by ambitious managers trying to prove they are the one with the correct solution to the vague problem set by ScotGov 10 years ago. To prove that they are on top of things, they drive staff to audit and evidence just about everything they do. She showed me her ‘forward plan’ that a depute head is demanding they write in arrears (honestly) to show how well her school is doing in CfE. My sister in law went to the HT to complain and he said, ‘But she is the only one who really understands what is going on in here. I think HMIE would be impressed and she is looking for headship!’

    I am disappointed that what, in my opinion, has been a heinous lack of integrity and leadership over how CfE can be pragmatically delivered in the classroom makes Fearghal think that teachers could somehow be to blame for the paper monster that exists. I do not disagree that what he says is true that many teachers demanded greater clarity but I’m not sure that that equates with it being their fault. I fully agree with his comment that “we could probably still lay the blame back at the top for not managing the change well through engaging the profession more deeply and meaningfully ” – therein lies the rub. Many of us fed back, commented, wrote and participated at all levels in the journey and at each stage we were told, ‘everything is on track and fully resourced’ when it most patently was not. When I commented that I was starting N courses 1 year in advance of the mooted start, MIke Russell actually said to me on Radio Scotland ‘that’s not true and anyway, what have you been doing for the last 8 years since CfE came out? You’ve had 8 years to prepare for this and you’re not ready?’ Interesting approach when not even the draft documentation for N4 and N5 had been issued!

    I think in secondary, we cannot have the aims of CfE annealing with the exam results agenda. Examinations at National 5 level and above, by definition, must be fair, equitable and consistent with what is taught. I think that is reflected in N5 having mandatory and N4 suggested learning areas. What I am observing is the same old tradition of how centralised policy is implemented. Some adopt , some adapt and some subvert. I’m not sure that many will notice the difference as CfE has such a wide set of aspirations that just about anything being done is acceptable if you are in control of the narrative.

    It will be fascinating to see if any of the ‘bonfire of the bureaucracy’ promises actually come true. A very simple act would be to simplify National internal assessments. For example, Make Nat 4 require Unit passes but relieve Nat 5 courses from this burden.

    Final thought, I have yet to meet a teacher doing the BGE in S3 as suggested. That included sitting at a table of 18 colleagues at an SQA event and 12 at an update inset. The closest I got was one FacHead saying, ‘in S3, we are honouring the BGE but making certain our pupils have had sufficient sampling of the elements of Nat 4 and 5 essential for them to be able to overcome the objectives of those courses.”

    Good debate though!

  7. There is an important point to consider here – if one organisation creates and drives the policy for teachers to implement, designs the “guidance” for the implementation of the policy, and also evaluates the policy as teachers are enacting it, then when things don’t go to plan, it is never ever going to , be the fault of the policy, is it?
    Fascinating discussion- well done Mark

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