Yesterday saw the publication of the OECD report Improving Schools in Scotland (see 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 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

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 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

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).


7 thoughts on “A new narrative for Curriculum for Excellence?

  1. Dear University professors and Academia at large,
    CfE, or, The Scottish Curriculum- if you have your way, is an absolute nightmare to work with on the frontline. It is whooly, unclear in its aims and in its communication. I am a classroom teacher. I consider myself as a foot soldier. It does not mean that I have no brains, but it also means that I have not decided to “breathe” education. I actually doubt that I have the vision to come with any significant ideas for change.

    What I need is something clear. Stakeholders who agree what school is for and also recognise what is practically possible. And powers that be (read Councils, Cosla, Government) that understand that I am human and cannot be incessantly squeezed right, left and centre by everyone and remain motivated, efficient and inspiring.

    What I don’t need, is screeds of weirdly worded jargon. I don’t need people in powerful places wanting their names on a plaque by “instauring a new successful system”, “reforming the system” or “making efficiencies in schools”.

    As a society, I accept that we must strive for getting better. However, we cannot do this by setting a whole system based on a utopian “teacher” type who will have no life and whose only care is the betterment of pupils. That person, if they exist at all, only exists for a short amount of time at the coal face ( a couple of years at most) before it is beaten out of them by life, politicians, pupils, parents and unwilling colleagues. Teachers are not nuns and monks who decided to marry Education. They are people, who like working with young people and who are trying to do a job.

    That job needs to be achievable (let’s stop with aspirational statements that become policies!), clearly stated in plain English and manageable over a long meaningful career (how can you have an experienced positive workforce if people either leave physically by quitting or leave mentally by actively aiming at skirtting off all the “rubbish” to make something manageable).
    Do you want to talk about narrative? What’s the point of a system that breaks down its practitioners into being shifty people who doggedly hang in there for their holidays? Not that they started that way, they just become disillusioned by the process (bureaucratic, unwieldy) when what we deal with is youth (dynamic, fickle, able to jump sideways to avoid work or consequences). How can you be accountable to the point we are now asked with such clearly starkly contrasting media?

    I make no claims at being a “great teacher”. I am ok. I am reliable (no matter how much nonsensical aspirational rubbish I am given, I will stand in front of my class without breaking down). I try to give pupils a good deal within the time I am ready to dedicate to my job. I mean to remain a teacher for a while. However, I can guarantee that I have never taught as badly as I am now- asked to monitor, track, evaluate, produce assessments (isn’t that SQA job?), aspire pupils, reassure parents. Sorry but the spark is truly dying in the drafts created by this maelstrom!
    I have now taken a seat back…like that recalcitrant child. I am “scunnered” by the process. In brief, the system is no longer getting the best out of me because it came with far too many mixed messages, incomprehensible garbage and plainly unrealistic goals.

    1. You don’t need to apologise to me for this heartfelt message. I feel your pain, and fully understand it – I have talked to many teachers on this subject, and was a teacher in several secondary school sin two countries. Just one correction (and I may be misunderstanding you here) – professors and academia have played only a minimal role in the development of CfE (as acknowledged by the OECD review) and arguably greater involvement may have avoided some of the excesses you talk about. The thrust of my arguments in this post it to make CfE something that is more manageable, less bureaucratic, more rooted in school practices and less byzantine – as it was initially intended to become. Whether we will achieve that (and I see the OECD report as an opportunity to do so) remains to be seen…..

    2. Spot in.

      If CFE is to have a new name, let it be ‘A Jenga Curriculum’ where everyone and their auntie (unless they were a teacher) was given an input. Now we have a complicated system that nobody understands but everyone has an opinion on what should be delivered. The Jenga part comes from the fear from all stakeholders that should improvement be suggested, the whole thing will come crumbling down.

  2. Thanks for this, a very insightful commentary. In my view, the E&Os are the biggest culprit. Any desire to innovate in teaching practice or to develop new approaches to learning has been crushed under the need to tick 30 or so (in my subject) level 3 boxes in a short space of time.

    My solution would be to strip out much of the prescribed content. Allow pupils to focus on developing skills and deliver the subject specific learning as part of the senior phase.

  3. Indeed, I may have been mistaken… but this is unsurprising. As teachers we get told “this, that and the next thing needs done”. However, we never know who asks us to do it. Who are they? Whose agenda are we (teachers) following? It turns out every layer of the tree has its word to say, so that in their audit, they are seen to have ticked boxes. Government, Teaching Scotland, SQA, Council educational services, and finally schools. Each layer interprets the idea in their own way, multiplying evidence processes to the point that, on the ground, we cannot budge! Nevermind the adverse effects of CfE on education, I’d like to know its impact on paper production!

    Thus, as a teacher, I don’t know who to blame for my woes. I accept that we have an input in it, but this is on top of all of our other duties…therefore the imput is minimal. I also accept that by relinquishing my input to non-educational managers, I am partly to blame for CfE being lost in a bureaucratic quadmire. However, as stated above, as a foot soldier, my input can only have a minimal impact.

    May be the solution is for Academia to get more involved. Whatever… is what I want to say. Give me a hammer with a grip on the handle is all I want. At the moment, I am hammering with a gripless hammer which has soap on the shaft! My efficiency level is remarquably good considering- I have only bent half the nails!

    1. You sum up the predicament of many teachers nicely. Despite all the efforts to upskill teachers, they continue to operate in an environment that disables them. I also agree about the proliferation of documentation and material. In effect the new curriculum has become a bit like the [not very politically correct] game Chinese Whispers. Each of the layers you identify reinterpets the curriculum for the next layer, and as a result emerging practices ins schools are often quite distant to intended curricular goals. This is a well known issue in curriculum developmwnt, and acknowledges that curriculum is a multi-layed phenomenon with different practices at each layer, not just a statement of content to be delivered. It can be addressed by teachers engaging directly with the core ideas as they develop practice. I would add here that this should not be about teachers doing as they are told to implement a teacher proof curriuclum – the national curriculum in England showed the futility of such approaches. It does mean teachers taking professional responsibility to enact practice from core ideas about education (and policy should be clear about articulating these) – and they should be given the resources (and the trust) to do this.

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