Curriculum for Excellence was widely welcomed on its inception in 2004. Teachers gave a thumbs-up to its avowed intention to declutter the curriculum and greatly reduce the spectre of assessment-driven learning. Academics welcomed its openness, and apparent [re]turn to trusting teachers as professional curriculum developers. Overseas, CfE was widely seen as a remarkable departure from the sorts of technicist, prescriptive curriculum that had blighted schools for nigh on two decades.

Today we seem to stand in a different place. My daily Twitter feed and media stories speak a very different story: widespread disillusionment, even amongst many of those teachers who have been steadfast supporters of CfE; a widespread view amongst secondary teachers that the introduction of new, CfE-ready qualifications has been botched; and many teachers complaining about an increase in bureaucracy associated largely with the demands of assessment (something acknowledged by the government – see and a concomitant intensification of workload.  So has it gone wrong? Are we, as one teacher put it on Twitter, stuck in “the next reincarnation [of] 5-14 – also heralded at the time, then dumped”? If so, then how has it gone wrong? And more important, how do we learn from the lessons of this curriculum when we address the next wave of national curriculum reform. This post deals with the first set of questions, focusing on the issues that have affected the smooth enactment of CfE. I will return to the second set of questions – how we address these issues – in a future post in the next week or two.

It is helpful here to attempt to disentangle the multi-layered complexity of curriculum development as CfE is translated from policy to practice. I will therefore make my comments according to three layers of curricular contextualisation: macro (i.e. issues relating to high level policy); meso (i.e. issues related to the [re]interpretation of such policy by government and local agencies; and micro (i.e. issues relating to the enactment of policy within schools). Of course space precludes a detailed analysis so the following consists of headlines only, with links to applicable literature where relevant.


In 2010, Walter Humes and I published a paper titled The Development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and déjà vu (see This article outlines, drawing up some classical curriculum theory, some major structural issues that have, I believe, led to some quite predictable outcomes in terms of how local authorities and schools have approached school-based curriculum development. Put briefly, our argument is that CfE sought to combine at least two quite different and largely incompatible curriculum models. On the one hand, the Four Capacities (the attributes and capabilities rather than the slogans) represent some comprehensive and entirely useful curricular aims, which might act as a starting point for a process curriculum approach, deriving content and methods according to fitness for purpose. I will say more about this approach in my follow-up post, as I believe that it offers considerable potential to fix the current problems of CfE. On the other hand, the decision to structure learning around outcomes, set out as linear levels, is indicative of a different curriculum model, and a quite different starting point for curriculum planning. I believe that there have been two important consequences of this fundamental tension in the CfE model:

  1. A lack of clear specification of curriculum development processes, starting with the overarching principles set out under the headings of the Four Capacities, has led in many schools to an audit approach to the curriculum. This in turn has led to an incremental and piecemeal approach to implementation in many schools, resulting in superficial, first order changes and, often, an intensification of workload as one initiative is piled on top of another (for an extended discussion of these issues see
  2.  Another direct corollary of the adoption of the outcomes model is the tendency of outcomes to be treated as assessment standards. BTC5 is replete with references to the E&Os as standards, for example: “In Curriculum for Excellence, the standards expected for progression are indicated within the experiences and outcomes at each level” (p13) and “…assessment tasks and activities provide learners with fair and valid opportunities to meet the standards.” (p36). BTC5 defines a standards as “something against which we measure performance” (p11). Given the sheer number of such standards, it is not surprising that assessment has come to dominate CfE in much the same way that it dominated 5-14.


The above issues play out in terms of the meso-level processes through which the high-level curricular documents are recontextualised as guidance for schools. I would argue that much of the guidance has not clearly articulated systematic processes for curriculum development, reflecting a lack of capacity for such development and a lack of grounding in applicable curriculum development literature. A further problem is the tendency for successive [re]interpretation of the big ideas of the curriculum over time, leading to practices that, in many cases, are at odds with the original intentions enshrined in the 2004 documents. Again assessment provides a telling example. The 2004 documentation referred extensively to the need for assessment to support the principles of the curriculum. As late as 2007, the cover paper for the draft E&Os stated that they were expressly not for assessment – they “are not designed as assessment criteria in their own right” (CfE overarching cover paper, 2007). And yet, by 2010 the language had shifted markedly, as illustrated by the extracts quoted from BTC5 above. Under such circumstances, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see how the current bureaucratic overload has developed, exacerbated by a continued emphasis in Scotland on accountability through output regulation (see


An evaluation of the very similar New Zealand Curriculum Framework (see suggested that a major reason for the early success of the new curriculum lay in the fact that policy had shifted into line with the constructivist views about education held by many teachers. This is manifestly not the case in Scotland, where transmissionist views about education (in terms of both content and pedagogy) are more common, and arguably at odds with the implicit constructivist thrust of the curriculum (another issue here is that aspects of this constructivism have never been made explicit – e.g. see Our Highland research suggested that many teachers welcomed the new curriculum in principle (we call this first order engagement), but that there had been far less second order engagement, relating to how CfE fits with teachers’ implicit theories of knowledge and learning and thorough understandings of the underpinning ideas of the curriculum (see  for an extended discussion of this issue). This lack of fit has been exacerbated by the lack of substantive sense-making opportunities for teachers, due largely to poor resourcing, and the lack of clear processes for engagement (as discussed above).

Where next?

The above discussion might be read as a savage criticism of CfE. It should not be. I fundamentally endorse the general direction of the curriculum, even if I am critical of aspects of the implementation model. I wholeheartedly welcome many of the changes to Scottish schooling that have accompanied CfE. These include a move to more dialogic approaches to learning, including group work, and an increased tendency for teachers to have conversations about learning. There is much to commend CfE, and the conversation we should be having relates to how it might realise its potential. The key challenge lies in how we differently engage Scotland’s highly professional teaching workforce in an educational initiative that should be a major opportunity for all – teachers, young people and the population in general. I will expand on this issue in part two of this post.

6 thoughts on “Curriculum for Excellence: taking stock and moving forward (part 1)

  1. Interesting and useful argument Mark. Generally the (open-ended) 2004 paper was too far away from how most teachers viewed the curriculum and the rebalancing carried out has swung the pendulum too far the other way. Neither round the right balance between the approaches analysed in your 2010 paper.

    More interesting for me is how this came about in terms of politics and governance – how are decisions made, and who , if anyone, has power? Most of the problems you highlight with the Es and Os come from their ‘compulsory’ character and the fact that schools are likely to be ‘judged’ on how well they match up to them. If they were seen as ‘helpful guidance’ they would allow hts/teachers to find the part of the ‘middle ground’ between the two approaches that best fitted their school context (not just the pupils, but also how ready the teachers were for change etc.)

    The authors of the 2004 paper ignored the key messages of the 2002 National Debate which suggested that the civic community was generally comfortable with the evolutionary development,of 5-14 in primary as Scottish teachers became more involved in/skilled at a greater variety of TL approaches, The real priorities identified included early years expansion and stronger elements of coherent curriculum planning at 16+ for those not following the Higher /HE track post=school, particularly for those alienated from formal schooling/education. Instead,of addressing a more limited set of priorities, where we could have made a difference, we sleep-walked into changing an entire system. The curriculum design in secy (BGE + SP) appeared from nowhere (there was never a consultation on this model), then failed to provide a sensible model of transition (so all over the country schools are redoing timetables on an annual basis to try to compensate for the staffing costs imposed by the new model which are not recognised in any budge planning at EA level) and failed to address some of the key issues at 16+ which remain unsolved. Lastly, in secondary education, CforEx has become #new exam system# and the early promise of rethinking curriculum design in S1-3 has been gobbled up by the monster of the new examination arrangements, for which there has been no trialling/piloting.

    We have ended up, both in the design of the secy cm and in the new examinations with a massive ‘trialling by implementation’ of a curriculum plan which does not address some of the real priorities highlighted in the 2002 debate, and restated clearly in the 2007 OECD report.

    I’m looking forward to your ‘part 2’!

  2. I firmly believed that CfE and the role of Chartered Teachers to be a useful partnership- after all, the Advanced Professional Studies M.Ed trailblazed the very sort of teaching that went with CfE up to Level 3.

    Those diagrams we were shown showing the overlap between CfE and the new qualifications showed some gaps- areas where consultation was needed, and which has to a limited extent happened. However, there needed to be joined up thinking with the SQA and this is where the snags have appeared. I say snags because – if one uses the analogy of a new build house, there is a window during which problems can be identified and addressed while the property is still the responsibility of the builder.

    This is snagging year for the Nationals- and next year’s snagging for Highers (think a really big new house) might also need some close attention.

    The closure of the CT programme to new entrants, and the McCormac issues have done CfE no favours- right at the point where the Chartered Teachers could be really useful, we are being sidelined. Perhaps at this point, invitations from Education Scotland and the SQA to get involved in developemt work might allow us to sort out the problems before the house comes tumbling down over our heads.

  3. Your sentence in the last paragraph re dialogic approaches to learning etc refers to what good teachers were doing before CfE was introduced. Other than that I am in agreement with Danny Murphy. I am also of the opinion that the headlong rush by HTs in my area to find a model to meet the Es and Os prevented meaningful discussion amongst teachers as to what they were going to do. In some instances it was a case of trying to fit current lessons into these Es and Os.

      1. I am re-reading some old stuff to refresh myself of the thinking at the time that lead to BTC 3 et al. I may then be in a better position to counter or agree with some of today’s argument.

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