In my previous post, I discussed the issues currently facing CfE, and suggested that I would come back to ways of addressing these issues in part two. In part one, I offered an analysis at three levels – macro-, meso- and micro-levels of curricular [re]contextualisation, suggesting issues at each level that have affected the implementation of CfE. In an ideal world, these issues might be addressed by commencing with the policy framework; a possible redesign being a precursor for more constructive curriculum development in schools. However, policy runs in cycles, and at present too much rides on CfE; the label ‘excellence’ has, for example, rendered the curriculum particularly high-stakes for those responsible for its implementation, and media interest (especially the potential for criticism) probably precludes any more than tinkering at this stage. With this in mind, I intend to offer this analysis from the bottom up, starting with suggestions at the micro-level of engagement.

Paradoxically, what many consider to be a weakness of CfE is also potentially its strength in relation to its development in schools. That is, its apparent ‘vagueness’ and ‘wooliness’ (to quote teachers in our 2012 research: see is a source of flexibility and opportunity for innovative teachers and schools seeking to maximise the potential of CfE. However, this requires a better knowledge of curriculum development principles than is currently present in many schools; it requires a clear commitment to making sense of the big ideas of CfE and development of a whole-school vision for the curriculum; and it requires  a developed sense of the mechanisms (fit-for-purpose content and pedagogy) for achieving these purposes of education. In short, it requires schools to treat CfE as a process curriculum.

According to the curriculum theorist A.V. Kelly, a process curriculum is one where ‘the starting point for educational planning is not a consideration of the nature of knowledge and/or the culture to be transmitted or a statement of the ends to be achieved, whether these be economic or behavioural, but from a concern with the nature of the child and with his or her development as a human being’ (Kelly, 1999). This sounds very much like CfE to me. Developing a process curriculum requires schools to start their curriculum planning with consideration of broad educational purposes, rather than by specifying content or conducting an audit of outcomes; and it requires a clear set of processes for curriculum development, for example as follows:

1.       Sense-making. This is about development of a vision at a whole-school level. It is about working out what the big ideas mean, and what are the purposes (long and short term) of education. According to Gert Biesta (2010), educational purposes can be grouped in the following categories: qualification (i.e. the knowledge and skills that people need for citizenship, the workplace and life in general); socialisation (i.e. induction onto cultural norms and values, and learning to live with one another); and subjectification (a horrible word that refers to the process of becoming the unique human that we all have the potential to become). The Four Capacities of CfE – and I mean the statements of attributes and capabilities here, rather than the rather banal slogans – seek to articulate purposes of education. They are not perfect, but they do provide an excellent starting point for discussion and sense-making. Arguably, in many schools, this sense-making has not occurred in sufficient depth, and subsequently such schools have failed to develop a sufficiently holistic vision for CfE. This was illustrated nicely by some research published by the Borders council in late 2012 (, which suggested that only around 10% of schools had developed a clear vision, and that these schools were developing better programmes as a result.

2.       The development of fit-for-purpose practices. Clarity of purpose engenders clarity in the development of practices. These include the specification of knowledge and teaching methods, as well as questions of provision.

a.       For example, schools need to consider what sorts of knowledge need to be acquired / developed. A useful concept is the notion of powerful knowledge, developed by educationalist Michael Young (2007). Young suggests that knowledge is powerful because it is grounded in the disciplines (i.e. it is scientific or disciplinary knowledge, rather than everyday knowledge; knowledge developed over time by communities of scholars according to scientific processes). While adopting the basic notion of powerful knowledge, I would disagree with Young as to why knowledge is powerful. Instead I prefer to see knowledge as powerful because of its potential effects; knowledge is powerful in what it makes possible, what it unlocks for young people. Knowledge is powerful in that it enables social action, critical citizenship, engagement with the natural world and effective careers, etc.. Some such knowledge may be of the everyday variety (e.g. health and relationships education).  Much will be grounded in disciplines. The key point here is that knowledge is central to the curriculum. The curriculum should not be about skills elevated over knowledge (and indeed skills vs knowledge is a false dichotomy). It should, as John Dewey (a prominent exponent of the process curriculum) suggested, focus on ‘the accumulated wisdom of the ages’ (Dewey, 1907). This is not, however, the same as saying that we start our curriculum development by specifying subjects; but it does suggest that the acquisition of [powerful] knowledge is a key purpose of education, and that the selection of content should be determined by its fitness-for-purpose.

b.      Another useful distinction drawn by Young is that between reflexive and routinised acquisition of knowledge – the distinction between deep understanding and superficial learning. This is largely a question of pedagogy. It is quite clear, if one looks carefully at the attributes and capabilities of CfE, that certain sorts of pedagogy are suitable for developing these. Thus, for example, developing the ability to think independently requires schools to develop inquiry approaches to learning. Making informed decisions requires pedagogy that develops this skill in a supportive educational environment. However, there is a caveat here. In some schools, CfE is seen as a matter of implementing off-the-shelf approaches wholesale – for example adopting cooperative learning across the school. Such approaches ignore the fact that, while cooperative learning is manifestly fit for some purposes (and I am a big fan of it), its uncritical adoption may fail to meet other purposes, where other pedagogies (including transmission techniques and worksheets) might serve better. Death by cooperative learning is, I believe, every bit as unpleasant for young people as death by a thousand worksheets.

c.       I wish to dwell briefly here on issues of provision. Addressing questions of fitness-for-purpose should also be about looking at systems and procedures, thus identifying barriers and drivers which impact upon the development of the curriculum. A prominent example of where this has not tended to happen concerns the secondary school timetable. Logic would suggest that a serious attempt to implement the principles of CfE would include a serious look at the structure of the school day. One might expect longer school periods for example, to accommodate CfE pedagogy. One might expect a serious look at the ways in which knowledge is organised in schools.  Disciplines and subjects are not the same thing, and schools should be looking at alternative ways to organise disciplinary (and everyday) knowledge, especially in the pre-qualification Broad General Education phase, where fragmentation is a problem (typically S1 pupils might see 15 teachers in a week). As Elliot Eisner (2005) reminds us, ‘There is no occupation …  in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program‘. Serious attention to such matters might include the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches, including hybrid subjects (integrated science, social studies, etc.).

I have focused here on the micro-level – on how schools might work within the framework provided by CfE in its current form. However, we also need attention at the meso- and macro-levels. In the former case, we need to see more in the way of support for teachers and schools to engage directly with the big ideas as described above, and less of the proliferation of guidance that leads to policy mutating, as it is subject to continual reinterpretation. In the latter case, we need to see a redesign of CfE – one that places greater emphasis on both the importance of educational purposes and the processes by which these are translated into meaningful practice. Such a redesign need not be radical, as the underpinning ideas are largely sound. In terms of structure, I would like to see an end to the framework of Outcomes (the E&Os) given the detrimental effect these have on practice, as outlined in part one of this post (for an extended discussion of these issues, see And we need to think carefully about how we reduce the burden of assessment and paperwork, particularly the hamster wheel of value-added tests that has emerged in the senior phase. These are long term goals that are not going to happen overnight – in the meantime, schools need to focus on the resources and ideas that are in place, and to work constructively with these. The ideas presented above offer one way of engaging with CfE in its current form.


Biesta, G.J.J. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement: Ethics, politics, democracy. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers.

Dewey, J. (1907) Waste in Education. In J. Dewey (Ed), The School and Society: being three lectures by John Dewey supplemented by a statement of the University Elementary School. Available online at:

Eisner, E. (2005). Reimagining Schools. London: Routledge.

Kelly, A. V. (1999). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 4th edition (London: Sage).

Young, M. (2007). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education (London: Routledge).

4 thoughts on “Curriculum for Excellence: taking stock and moving forward (part 2)

  1. An excellent (doh!) analysis of where I feel we are. I am particularly taken by the (c) section as I tend to judge people on actions and outcomes, not words. I was having this discussion today with a wonderful probationer who claimed that very early on most of his colleagues spot the discrepancy between the proclamations and the pragmatics. Immediately we seized upon the idea of the BGE timetable being a whole day or morning in each subject to allow developmental activities to flow and to allow integration of experiences, knowledge and skills. Instantly, a more experienced colleague (and I am duty bound to agree with her) added, ‘But we can’t timetable that! There is not enough accommodation! What about exams? It can’t be staffed!’ Secondary schools are not set up for CFE but it would be good if a ‘leader’ actually addressed this as more and more people are judging CFE on the living outcomes like the 33 period day, facultisation, dilution of need for specialists beyond S2 and increased responsibility for internal assessment. All items sold to us as supporting CFE but only leading to savings in money and staff. Have we been conned?

    1. Interesting that exams are cited as the reason why secondary schools can’t timetable the BGE properly. The BGE is not supposed to be about exams, but instead about a broad foundational education. I wonder if we should reintroduce the middle school as a separate stage (exam free), and then allow secondaries to focus on exam subjects entirely. Certainly a distinct philosophical separation between BGE and exams is needed – a notion that the lower secondary is not about dress-rehearsing for exam subjects, but instead about building foundational knowledge and skills. Other countries manage this – why can’t Scotland?

      1. Mark,
        I think there is now a set of divergent and schismatic views bringing pressure upon upper secondary in particular. On one hand, there is an expectation that a variety of pedagogies will be explored, evaluated and improved at the same time as ensuring our youngsters will achieve to a high degree. Meanwhile, HMIE, ES and politicians demand ever improving results at the sharp end of schools. This is underpinned by resource starvation and change (not improvement) fatigue. At this moment, in my opinion, this is leaving teachers and pupils confused, stressed and directionless.

        I really do question the leadership ability of many as it seems to be ‘crisis reactive’ instead of ‘opportunity perceptive.’ Why has the last two years been littered by denial of any problems by our leaders when many at the chalkface have been politely asking for help? Why is £2.3m found two years ago and £5m this week, days after public pronouncements of ‘steady as she goes’ only days before? In my department, I can only see staff creaking as lunchtimes and after-school times are sacrificed to try to interpret and comply with Task 1, Task 2 and Task 3 of SQA directives. No trialling. No piloting. Only demands that are not being met with any quality.

        A final point, my pupils had completed Task 1 on A4 paper as requested from information I received at an SQA meeting in October 2012. It was marked and checked last August. Then I was told last November that I had to use the ‘investigations booklet’ by another colleague fresh from an SQA event, so they had to repeat the exercise, have it marked and recorded. Today, a colleague who had attended one of the latest SQA support meetings informed us that we could not use a booklet and it had to be ‘done on paper.’ Documentation is vague. Staff are either working in ignorance or reacting to verbal answers at crowded inset. Considering I have 34 pupils doing this exercise, this means I have recorded this task 102 times – and this does not allow for the numerous drafts and re-drafts. When CEO Janet Brown says teachers are ‘over-assessing’ she is correct. The blame though, lies closer to Dalkeith than the school.

  2. Sorry Mark, this is just a bit of rant, while I’m waiting for a colleague!

    It is overly simplistic to say that Primary School have few problems with CfE, but by and large, if they have been able to avoid a bureaucratic, box-tick approach (which I agree has been somewhat encouraged by the Es and Os) they can use the freedoms of CfE and broad aspirations expressed in the ‘capacities’ to support many good pedagogical and educational practices.

    However secondary schools do have significant difficulties for a number of structural reasons:
    1. BGE was given no philosophical base in the secondary school – nor was the profession brought into consultative discussion before it was ‘landed’ on them as a diktat. Many do not understand it nor do they agree with what it aims to do. Failure to engage the people who were going to have to deliver the curriculum in this important foundational concept was a fundamental mistake in the planning phase. Personally, I think the concept has a lot of merit philosophically, but it then has to be made to work in the secondary school and the curriculum progression has to be made to work as well. Currently it does not.
    2. This is partly because it was not tied to a workable curriculum/timetable model, so we now see across the country 57 different varieties of compromises of choice in S2 and S3 as Maths, Science and Mod Lang teachers try to fit into S2/S3 the content and skills they see as necessary for success in S4.
    3. More importantly it does not work because CfE did not engage with 15-18 curriculum. Again there was no philosophical rationale, nor attempt to engage the civic community in purposeful debate (as happened around the Howie Report in the early 90s). Instead we seem to have stumbled our way into keeping the same progression for Credit/Higher/Advanced Higher routes and left the same messy complexity of half understood possibilities and pathways for the ‘rest’ (i.e. >50% of our pupils). Teachers, anxious about changes to the high accountability S4 examinations system, with burdensome new requirements for internal verification and reduced flexibility in presentation, naturally worried about how to ensure appropriate ‘foundations’ in the earlier phases of secondary, particularly in subjects like those named above where there is a sequence to some aspects of that learning.
    4. The changes to the examination system have completely overwhelmed secondary school teachers – new internal verification procedures and syllabi and examinations are being ‘piloted by implementation’. When S Grade was introduced there was a phased implementation through piloting by 20 ‘enthusiastic’ schools, chosen to be the leaders within their (then) local authorities and these schools developed teaching resources, ironed out problems with assessment, networked nationally etc, so that when other schools came on board there was a more robust system and a credible colleague at the end of the line who had already been there. This is compounded by forcing changes into S5 the year after S4. Consequently in many schools, already struggling with budget cuts and the usual overload, all work on BGE has virtually ceased.
    5. Lastly, and in my view most importantly, our national system decided in 2004 to overhaul every aspect of every stage in a massive new Curriculum for Excellence. This was too big an undertaking. In its implementation, the key priorities identified in the national debate of 2002 and reinforced by the 2007 OECD report have been neglected and continue to be neglected. At the time, though sympathetic to the philosophical principles of CfE, I favoured, basically on pragmatic grounds, a less ambitious, more targeted reform which would address those issues which were manifestly wrong with Scottish education, those pupils who lost out the most. As could have been predicted, much of the attention and energy continues to focus on making sure that those working their way through the Credit/N5 to Higher to A H pathway are not disadvantaged, while those who were disadvantaged before, continue to be disadvantaged by a skewed 15+ curriculum and assessment system.

    Danny Murphy

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