The publication this week of the triennial PISA results has produced the usual phenomenon of the PISA shock in various countries. In the UK, England has maintained its position relative to other countries, and this is a source of disappointment to a government that staked its reputation on improving its performance. In Wales, indifferent performance and a disappointing set of results in science are a source for concern, but the political message is, in the words of one headteacher, to ‘hold our nerve’ and see through the current curricular reforms. In Scotland, a dip in performance relative to England is more difficult to stomach, and has raised inevitable questions about whether the decline is due to Curriculum for Excellence. According to Professor Lindsay Paterson, a long-time critic of CfE, the decline in Scotland’s relative and absolute performance on PISA is ‘shocking’ (see http://www.itv.com/news/border/2016-12-06/education-professor-calls-scotland-figures-shocking/). Professor Paterson states that the pupils tested in the current PISA round have been entirely educated under CfE, suggesting that CfE is the problem.
I have some sympathy with some of his well-known criticisms of CfE. I have consistently been on record as supporting the broad general direction represented by the curriculum – local flexibility, student-centred approaches and teacher autonomy – but would agree with him in his critique of the lack of attention to knowledge within CfE. To my mind, a progressive curriculum should not preclude, as stated by John Dewey, the learning of ‘the accumulated wisdom of the ages’; it should not mean that teachers should neglect issues of knowledge. I too regularly hear educators telling me that ‘we do not need to teach knowledge anymore because pupils can google what they need to know’, and that ‘education is all about skills now’. In my view, a curriculum should be knowledge-rich, and this entails teachers posing the right questions in their curriculum design about what knowledge is of most worth.
Nevertheless, I would disagree with the notion that CfE is to blame for the decline in PISA scores experienced in Scotland. This seems to be a simplistic explanation, which ignores the complexity of educational reform and of the multi-layered terrain of education in Scotland. Instead I would point to what the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher stated on BBC news on 6 December 2016 – that Scotland needs to move from an intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum. While I have warned for some years that the problem with CfE is not CfE per se, despite its weaknesses in the area of knowledge (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/17866) and tensions within its structure (see http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03054980903518951), I would argue that the original vision for the curriculum was sound, with its basis in a set of clear purposes – attributes and capabilities – to be developed by education. Indeed, CfE sought to provide in Scotland exactly the sort of rich educational experience that is evident in highly performing education systems such as Singapore and Finland, and is typical in many ways of curriculum policy in many such countries.
Instead, the problems lies in its enactment – its translation from policy to practice, as clearly indicated by the OECD in its 2015 review of CfE. There are various issues here, all of which add to a highly complex enactment of policy to practice. They include:
- The specification of curricular content as detailed learning outcomes, which have encouraged audit approaches and strategic compliance with CfE, rather than full engagement with its principles. The new benchmarks offer more of the same, and will require a great deal of care in their implementation if we are to avoid a continuation of such approaches.
- A lack of clarity in CfE guidance about processes for curriculum development (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/22518) and the sheer volume of CfE documentation; the latter issue has contributed to a lack of clarity amongst schools and teachers, especially as the key messages have often been obscured, and in some cases changed over time. Again, the OECD identified this issue in their call for a simplified narrative.
- The persistence of accountability mechanisms that have acted counter to the spirit of CfE, often encouraging performativity in schools (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/20761) and its accompanying bureaucracy.
- A teaching workforce that, while highly dedicated and technically skilled, has often struggled to make sense of a new and different curriculum, in the absence of sustained programmes to engage them with its principles and develop theories of knowledge that are consonant with this approach. I continue to meet teachers who admit to being baffled by CfE. A further, and related issue is cultural; implicit teacher philosophies about education do not always sit easily with CfE, and the lack of adequate spaces for sense-making does not allow this issue to be readily addressed.
- A paucity of craft knowledge around curriculum development across the system – what Michael Apple has described as a ‘lost art’.
The net result has been an incomplete (at best) enactment of CfE, and a tendency to address new curricular problems through existing practices and assumptions. This was evident in our research in 2011 and 2012 (e.g. http://hdl.handle.net/1893/11356), and I have seen little evidence since, in my extensive work with teachers, that the situation has improved. Thus the issue with declining scores in PISA is, in my opinion, likely to be due to a failure to enact CfE adequately, rather than being a problem with CfE as a curricular approach.
So how do we address this? A good starting point is the OECD review, which provides legitimation for a revision of CfE in its call to be bold. In all of this we need to remember that the curriculum should not be set in stone as a sabre tooth curriculum (see http://users.ugent.be/~mvalcke/OWK_1415/toetsing/thesabertoothcurriculumshor.pdf); instead it should be subject to regular review, and such a process should not be framed as a climb-down or u-turn by policy makers, but simply a part of the normal process of updating the curriculum to adapt to changing societal needs. This means a rationalisation of existing documentation, in my view, to provide the simplified narrative called for by the OECD. It requires the establishment of a strengthened middle – a mid-system leadership stratum that provides support and facilitation for curriculum development, using tried and tested methods of teacher/curriculum development such as collaborative professional enquiry (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/24179). Above all, we should ‘hold our nerve’ with CfE, and enact it fully in the spirit of its original aspirations (avoiding the political temptation to ape the testing regimes so familiar in England). The CfE model is much admired around the world – but we need to make it a reality in our schools.