A Statement for Practitioners: how useful is the new CfE guidance?

The publication this week of the much-awaited clarification of CfE raises more questions than answers for me (for the guidance documents, see https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Pages/CfE-delivery-plan.aspx). I felt a little dubious that the OECD’s call for a bold new approach and a simplified narrative was being addressed in such a short timescale, with a deadline of the start of the new school year. It seems to me that this is a complex and difficult undertaking that requires careful and critical reflection over a more sustained period of time. The guidance has now arrived; the question is – does it achieve its putative aims of clarifying and simplifying?

In some ways, it undoubtedly does. I am heartened to see a reinforcement of the message that bureaucracy should be reduced. This is now a consistent message from the government and its agencies, and it is one which local authorities and schools should heed. It is good to see a clear steer that assessment should not be driven by a process of ticking off Es & Os, but that instead these should inform planning; this is, after all, what they were originally designed for, only becoming identified as assessment standards in later documentation. Early guidance (for example the cover paper accompanying the draft Es & Os) demonstrated a sensitivity towards the dangers of assessment driving the curriculum, stating clearly that the outcomes ‘are not designed as assessment criteria in their own right” (CfE overarching cover paper, 2007). Similarly BTC3 stated:

The curriculum must be designed around the experiences and outcomes. They should be used to identify essential content, key skills and experiences. These should then be used to establish progression for learners by setting out the main elements which differentiate performance as learners progress within, and through, the levels.” (BTC3 summary paper, 2008)

Of course subsequent developments revealed a shift in emphasis. BTC5 (2010) not only characterised the Es & Os as standards for assessment, but went so far as to define a standard as ‘something against which we measure performance’. It is good see a return here to the thinking that underpinned the early days of CfE

Despite these encouraging messages, I am left disappointed by the guidance. First, there are inconsistencies in the document. For example, the first part talks about the primacy of the Es & Os and the benchmarks, and does not mention the purposes, principles and values that should underpin curriculum development. These are subsequently highlighted as key messages in the appendix, which offers a different focus. Significant aspects of learning are not mentioned in the first part of the document, then linked explicitly to the benchmarks in the appendix.

Second, the guidance seeks to simplify, but then adds a new layer of complexity – the benchmarks – which may drive assessment in the same tick-box fashion as did the Es & Os. This is a good example of the curricular phenomenon described as a spiral of specification by Alison Wolf (1995). It may be that a perceived additional clarity provided by the benchmarks will be welcomed by many teachers, who find the Es & Os vague and unhelpful. My view is that providing teachers with hundreds of detailed assessment criteria will simply continue to encourage bureaucratic box-ticking and convergent approaches to learning – and cause a concomitant increase in teacher workload. The following examples (Literacy: Listening and Talking) provide an illustration of the complexity and detail involved:

  • Contributes regularly in group discussions or when working collaboratively, offering relevant ideas, knowledge or opinions with supporting evidence.
  • Responds appropriately to the views of others developing or adapting own thinking.
  • Builds on the contributions of others, for example, by asking or answering questions, clarifying or summarising points, supporting or challenging opinions or ideas.
  • Applies verbal and non-verbal techniques appropriately to enhance communication, for example, eye contact, body language, pace, tone, emphasis and/or some rhetorical devices.
  • Uses appropriate register for purpose and audience.
  • Identifies features of spoken language and gives an appropriate explanation of the effect they have on the listener, for example, body language, gesture, pace, tone, emphasis and/or rhetorical device

These benchmarks form half a page out of the 48 pages of the Literacy benchmarks – we have similar statements for Numeracy and are promised a similar level of detail for all subject areas by Christmas. This does not look like a simplified narrative to me. The OECD exhorted Scotland to be bold in its CfE reforms. A bold approach would have been to abolish the Es & Os altogether. I believe these have greatly contributed to the bureaucracy afflicting schools, by encouraging audit approaches to curriculum development. While they remain (or are replaced by detailed benchmarks), Ministers’ calls for teachers to reduce bureaucracy will be ineffective; the main causes of bureaucracy are structural, and the Es and Os are a significant (although not the only) factor here. Other countries such as Ireland are moving away from this multi-level, over-complex approach to defining learning outcomes. And as the OECD review stated clearly, “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?”. For an analysis which has informed the Irish approach, see http://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/23225.

As illustrated by the example above about assessment standards, CfE has often seemed to be an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of terminology and concepts. The Statement for Practitioners appears to continue this tradition, by adding yet more guidance, while apparently stating in the appendix that much of the existing documentation of CfE is still current. This does not seem to me to be in keeping with the call for a new narrative. It may be that subsequent guidance will move us towards a new and simplified narrative. At present I do not see this happening. The existing and often contradictory documentation that has emerged over time needs to be replaced by a single set of detailed CfE guidance that offers a clear and consistent message about the curriculum and its development processes. It may have been better to have avoided the short-term calls for the short piece of clarification represented by this document, and spent the time working on a more radical overhaul of the existing guidance. Of course this can still happen, but it requires a boldness that is not evident in this week’s publication of the Statement for Practitioners.

Reference

Wolf, A. (1995). Competence-Based Assessment. Buckingham: Open University Press