Further reflections on the OECD review: strengthening ‘the middle’.

The OECD report Improving Schools in Scotland (see https://tinyurl.com/j3vce6g) may have heralded a ‘watershed moment’ (p16) in the development of CfE, but all seems to have gone quiet on this front in the months since its publication. As I stated in my December post on building a new narrative for CfE:

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. (https://tinyurl.com/jko29vk)

I believe that we need to follow the advice of the OECD team now, acting ‘boldly’ (p.10) to seize this ‘watershed moment’ (p.10). One area worthy of immediate attention is the recommendation to strengthen ‘the middle’ (p.98). But what is the middle? What is its function? And how should it be strengthened? The first question is easy – the OECD clearly described the middle as the local authority infrastructure that governs Scottish schools. I would go further and add Education Scotland to the current mix comprising the middle. A similar function is performed by the four regional consortia of schools in Wales. The key insight here is that these organisations have middle- or meso-level functions, being situated between the curriculum policymakers (the government) and the curriculum enactors (schools and teachers). This raises further questions for me about the functions of the middle.

In order to explore this question, it is useful to examine idea that the curriculum operates differently at different levels or layers of the system, that these levels have different functions and, logically, that curriculum development practices should reflect this. It is good to bear in mind here that curriculum is mediated though the prior beliefs, values and priorities of actors at each level, and because each level will generate different beliefs, values and priorities, what is evidently good for actors at one level may not seem so for those at another. Thus, for example, we see tensions arising when accountability demands emanating from the meso-level of the system do not accord closely with the desires and values of teachers (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/20761).

So might be the function of each level?

  • At the macro-level of policy, the curriculum can be usefully conceptualised as a set of big ideas – a statement of intent – for framing professional practice. Early CfE policy took this view explicitly, ‘looking at the curriculum differently’ (see http://www.gov.scot/resource/doc/98764/0023924.pdf). In this view, the proper function of the macro level is to formulate frameworks that provide intellectual resources for the development of curriculum in schools. It is not to prescribe in detail what should be taught and how it should be taught.
  • At the meso-level of policy development curricular practices should largely operate in terms of facilitation of and support for professional practice in schools. In my view, a particular problem with the development of CfE to date has been a conflation of these levels and their functions, particularly at the meso-level, where a great deal of activity has taken the form of the production of documentation that reinterprets macro-level policy, leading to the development of long chains of dissemination and increasing the risk of a ‘Chinese Whispers’ effect, where emerging practices lose connection with the principles guiding the high level policy.
  • At a micro-level of the educational institution, the curriculum relates to educational practices that are developed to fit the big ideas of the curriculum. This requires both informed professional judgement and flexibility in interpretation to meet local needs. I have written regularly on this blog about the processes required for this type of engagement (e.g. https://tinyurl.com/jnkgyug).

For an excellent, and highly useful overview of these ideas and their applicability for developing classroom practices, see the handbook Curriculum in Development produced by the Netherlands Institute for Curriculum Development (see http://www.slo.nl/downloads/2009/curriculum-in-development.pdf/). Please note that I have adapted their conception of the meso-level slightly to fit with the Scottish context, where there is a clearly defined curriculum development layer that sits between government and schools.

There are a number of implications that emerge once we start looking at curriculum development in this way. Foremost amongst these is the need to strengthen the meso-level, as identified by the OECD. Part of this strengthening can be achieved by a reconfiguring of its function. Many teachers will fondly remember the days when the local authorities provided advisory services related to curriculum development, a function largely replaced by a quality assurance or inspectorial role. I believe that there now needs to be a new reconceptualization of the role of the middle, with a renewed emphasis on the provision of high quality leadership for curriculum development in schools, and a move away from the accountability and curriculum reinterpretation roles more commonly found in today’s meso-level organisations. This might, for example, take the form, for example, of hands-on leadership of curriculum development processes such as collaborative professional enquiry (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/22518). This in turn comes with the implication that we need to urgently build the capacity within the system for such leadership; surely a worthy role for the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. And it may also come with the further implication that the current ‘middle’ is simply not fit for purpose,and needs to be replaced by a different model, perhaps along the lines of the Welsh regional consortia.