A new narrative for Curriculum for Excellence?

Yesterday saw the publication of the OECD report Improving Schools in Scotland (see https://tinyurl.com/j3vce6g). The report, originally set up to provide an external evaluation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), offered a broad and mainly complimentary commentary on the health of Scotland’s school system. It also offered a critique, including a range of insightful and helpful recommendations for improving the curriculum. These covered issues such as the need to build capacity for practitioner engagement with curricular issues, advice about simplification of curriculum guidance, and the need to make better use of the expertise residing in Scotland’s research community. An intriguing recommendation referred to creating a ‘new narrative for CfE’ (see pp.19-22).

This raises some interesting questions. For example, what is wrong with the existing narrative? The review was clear that the building blocks of effective curricular practice have been provided by CfE and parallel policies such as those associated with Teaching Scotland’s Future. However, and I would concur with these, it identified some issues affecting the translation of curricular aims into practice. These include the complexity of guidance; as I have argued elsewhere, a problem with CfE has been a proliferation of guidance that is often vague and poorly rooted in research, and which has often served to merely reinterpret earlier documentation for practitioners. Another issue lies in the tension between the Four Capacities (effectively key competencies) and the more specific outcomes. The OECD quite rightly asks ‘How clearly aligned can be a curriculum that is both about four capacities on the one hand, and about extensive Experiences and Outcomes on the other?’. As Walter Humes and I have argued, this creates multiple starting points for curriculum development (see http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03054980903518951). What the OECD termed the ‘elasticity’ (p.21), emerging from the above issues (particularly the lack of clarity around purposes and methods) means that pretty much anything can be made to fit. This in effect means that, for many schools, CfE has been an audit process (against the Es & Os) followed by a rebranding exercise, rather than genuinely transformational change. Our research suggests, for example, that many secondary schools have adapted existing practices, retaining many familiar features of the old curriculum such as short timetabled lessons and traditional subjects, rather than opening up the innovation made possible by the new curriculum (e.g. see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/11356).

Thus there is a compelling case here for suggesting that the existing narrative of CfE is over complex, lacks coherence in places and has not therefore instigated the sorts of reform envisaged by the architects of the curriculum. This then raises a further question: ‘what might a new narrative look like?’. I offer here some thoughts on this subject. I would largely concur with the OECD that the building blocks are in place. These include a reasonably clear statement of purposes (the Capacities), good practices in relation to formative assessment and interactive pedagogy such as cooperative learning, and the development of teacher professional learning and leadership in recent years. What has been missing from the narrative, in my view, is a clear sense of process. This is commonplace in modern outcomes-based curricula, where it is assumed that the methods are not important as long as the outcomes are achieved, but it is unhelpful when the expectation is for practitioners to engage with policy in developing practice. Thus my narrative for CfE would start from a clear definition of educational purposes, and then clearly set out a process for engagement. This process led approach is very much about a school-based approach to curriculum development, as advocated by the OECD.

First, let me examine the notion that the curriculum should be driven by clearly articulated purposes. The Four Capacities go some of the way towards this, but require substantial sense-making by teachers. They need to be framed against deeper purposes of education, or in other words should address the question ‘what are schools for?’. This will inevitably include preparation for the world of work, but education should also develop the capacity for critical, engaged citizenship (for an excellent overview, see http://democraticdialogue.com/DDpdfs/WhatKindOfCitizenAERJ.pdf). Educational purposes need to be accompanied by educational principles. CfE has a stab at these, but the rather vague existing principles could usefully also include dimensions such as ‘interactive’ and ‘dialogical’ – ideas that are currently contained in a rather fragmented fashion in the Es & Os. Second, a process-led approach should involve consideration of fitness-for-purpose, or in other words which practices are best suited to developing the desired attributes set out within the principles and purposes of the curriculum. These relate to the types of knowledge required to become educated, as well as the pedagogical and assessment practices which might best develop the desired attributes. Third, and finally, a clear narrative for CfE should include suitable processes for undertaking innovation. The GTCS already advocates professional enquiry and, in my view, this approach offers considerable potential to develop the curriculum. However, there are many types of professional enquiry; some are very light on process and do not connect well with educational purposes. Thus a clear narrative for CfE should also incorporate a clear and detailed set of processes for translating curricular aims into curricular practices. Our recent work with schools in East Lothian provides a template for this, and early empirical research suggests that this is both effective and successful in developing CfE (for full details of this initiative, see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/22518).

A couple of final points. First, let’s stop calling it Curriculum for Excellence, as suggested by the OECD; The Scottish Curriculum sounds pretty good to me. Second, developing a new narrative for CfE does not necessarily mean rewriting the curriculum. It does, however, mean developing clarity about how one proceeds from the principles and purposes of the curriculum to meaningful classroom practice. And it may mean replacing some of the more unhelpful existing guidance with new forms of guidance – and possibly dropping the Es and Os altogether. This will require both clarity of purpose and a proactive approach from those with the expertise and influence to redevelop CfE; as the OECD stated, ‘this is a prime opportunity boldly to enter a new phase, building upon the achievement to date’ (p.16).