Bureaucracy and Curriculum for Excellence

Last week, I spoke at two quite different events. The first was a large conference, featuring prominent politicians and key figures in Scotland’s educational establishment. The second was the PedagooGlasgow event, attended by 70 highly enthusiastic teachers. Despite the differences between these events, they shared one commonality: in both cases, serious concerns were expressed about the manner in which CfE has become an assessment/attainment driven curriculum, characterised by bureaucratic systems of accountability. It is now ten years since CfE was first launched, and in the intervening period, it can be argued that the curriculum has lost touch with its aspirational core principles – the big ideas that shape and define the curriculum. This is a strange phenomenon, given that CfE (in respect of those core principles) retains all-party support in parliament. Furthermore, our research, and my recent professional interactions with teachers suggest that the teaching profession remains largely in support of those same core principles. And I have yet to meet anyone – in government, in local authorities, in Education Scotland, or in schools – who openly advocates excessive bureaucracy; most complain about it as a [necessary] evil, and as a by-product of the new curriculum. As Private Eye would say, “shome mishtake shurely?”.

There is action afoot, of course, to counter these bureaucratic tendencies. The government’s recent publication of the Tackling Bureaucracy report (http://tinyurl.com/m2jvnhw), the commissioning of research in this area (http://tinyurl.com/qggs2ag), and the instructions to inspectors to challenge overly bureaucratic approach are all encouraging developments. And yet I remain uneasy. I am a concerned that the finger of blame will be pointed at teachers, when the major causes of increasing levels of bureaucracy lie in systemic issues (I also have my doubts as to whether the commissioned research will delve sufficiently into the complexities of social systems, but I may be pleasantly surprised). I offer here two sets of observations here on this subject.
The first relates to the balance between input and output regulation of the curriculum. Teachers in Scotland and elsewhere now operate in conditions characterised by unprecedented levels of external scrutiny, accompanied by low levels of professional trust. Worldwide national curricula have shifted in recent years from highly prescriptive models (such as England’s 1988 National Curriculum) towards ostensibly more open developmental models, with considerable scope for teacher autonomy. This move away from ‘input regulation’ has, however, been accompanied by increasing levels of ‘output regulation’ – through inspections, attainment data – which has, according to thinkers like Gert Biesta, done more to erode teacher autonomy than the prescriptive curricula which preceded them (for a fuller discussion of these issues in relation to Scotland, see my paper at http://tinyurl.com/ntnk99y). A direct corollary of such approaches is a heightened sense of risk within the system, accompanied by the development of performative cultures at different levels of the education system. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that teachers, school managers, local authority officers, and people in government devise bureaucratic systems that, put crudely in the words of a former colleague, include “cover your arse” purposes. Of course such developments are situated in a far wider, supranational context, fed by the importance placed on PISA (see http://www.scotedreview.org.uk/pdf/373.pdf for an excellent discussion of this by Bob Lingard).

I firmly believe that another feature of the Scottish system has a part to play in the inexorable development of over-bureaucratic systems. This is the continued adherence to an outcomes-based model of curriculum (for an extended discussion of the model underpinning CfE, see http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03054980903518951). The standard model for the outcomes curriculum, with content and outcomes set out as linear levels, has been with us in a variety of forms for at least 25 years now, since the Task Group on Assessment and Testing reported to then Westminster Education Minster Kenneth Baker (see http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/pdfs/1988-TGAT-report.pdf). This ‘innovative’ response to a problematic set by a politician determined to regulate the school curriculum was initially intended to be a teacher led assessment system, but quickly morphed into the system of SATs so familiar to teachers in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. It clearly appealed to the political imagination, going viral around the world and underpinning the development of output regulation of teachers’ work. One, possibly apocryphal story relates the tale of how the number of levels was set in Australia and New Zealand in the early 1990s. The story goes that Australia specified twelve levels; in New Zealand the curriculum mooted five. The compromise (necessary because of a memorandum of economic cooperation between the two countries) was to plump for eight. I digress here, but include this ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ anecdote to illustrate that curricular decisions are not always taken for educational reasons. This brings me to my main point: that curricula based around linear levels of outcomes are a lot to do with accountability and little to do with education. This would not be a problem if they did not interfere with educational processes. My view is that they do. Our research in Scotland suggests that the model encourages instrumental, tick-box approaches to defining the curriculum. There is a wealth of literature suggesting that outcomes-based approaches, by specifying learning in advance in minute detail, narrow what is learned. They are associated with excessive and labyrinthine bureaucracy, and instrumental, assessment-driven teaching. Echoing Keir Bloomer’s 2009 observations, the E&Os of CfE are a cul-de-sac, limiting the potential of CfE (see http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6018018).

So where now? How do we tackle bureaucracy? One answer is to restore trust in teachers. At present, there is much talk about this, but I remain unconvinced that the talk is backed up by action. Another is to look seriously at the continued place of outcomes set out as linear levels. At the aforementioned conference on CfE last week, Alasdair Allan, Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, stated that no revision of the E&Os is in the pipeline. Keir Bloomer, talking at the same conference suggested that they should be. Recent developments in England suggest that we need to go further in terms of levels, removing them altogether from the assessment equation (see http://www.huntingenglish.com/2013/12/06/moving-beyond-national-curriculum-levels/ and http://classteaching.wordpress.com/assessment-without-levels/). Is it now time in Scotland for some more radical thinking about the structure of the curriculum, keeping the core principles of CfE, but establishing different processes for its development by the abolition of levels and outcomes? Such a suggestion will no doubt be subject to lively debate, which I very much welcome. Needless to say, this should be underpinned and supported by rigorous research into the conditions and social processes through which bureaucracy has infected CfE.

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