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 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 and tensions within its structure (see, 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 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 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., 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; 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 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.


24 thoughts on “CfE and PISA: ‘holding our nerve’

  1. What about the place of subjects in the curriculum? Have we created a mist around knowledge through contrived integrated approaches to learning, which many pupils say they find boring? It must be difficult for young people to extract the key knowledge they need to retain from a month of studying the theme of the sausage, for example. Perhaps we would be better to focus on subject skills and knowledge—from at least S1. Rather than using generic skills as the starting point in curriculum planning, let subjects contribute related skills taught in context which then make a contribution to the overall skills the pupils develop across a range of subjects.

    1. That suggests we cannot have a knowledge rich curriculum without subjects (as traditionally understood). I would disagree. I certainly think the curriculum should be knowledge rich (as well as focusing on skills)

      1. I think we need to consider it from a pupil’s perspective. The skills you need to develop in problem-solving in maths are different from those in PE, and the best place to learn the former is in a maths lesson. And while designers of the curriculum are able to map out what they want the pupils to learn, how does a 13 year-old know what to take from a week of studying the sausage?

      2. The work of cognitive psychologists such as Willingham, Kirschner, Sweller does state that knowledge is domain specific, hence subjects. More interestingly, what are the conditions under which you would consider CfE to have been the source of the problem? This seems to be one outcome that you are not willing to consider yet critical thinking would demand that all possibilities are on the table.

      3. I would not disagree that knowledge and skills are domain specific. However, there are difficulties here. Disciplines are socially constructed to some extent. Schools subjects are not accurate reflections of disciplines (they are affected by their own politics and many draw from more than one discipline). Inter-disciplinary approaches to learning can draw on disciplinary knowledge (inc modes of inquiry) in ways which are true to their constituent disciplines. As for the faults with CfE, I have been well-published on the issues with the curriculum. CfE has design faults, and these have been amplified by the implementation process, which has been extremely flawed. I suggest you read some of my work – see and, for example. Lack of attention to knowledge is a key problem. However, the thrust of my argument in this post is to say that to blame the CfE direction for a decline in PISA scores is simplisitic – and I was responding to such accusations in the media when I wrote it.

      4. Thank you for linking, I will read.

        I don’t think the politics of subjects would indicate doing anything other than ensuring one goes away from bias.

        As for social construction – so are inter-disciplinary approaches.

        The problem with knowledge is also a problem with trying to use it in an interdisciplinary way (far transfer) when this is near impossible. How children who have not learnt the knowledge as part of a subject are supposed to use it in an inter-disciplinary way is a fatal flaw in the thinking.

        However, more to the point – under what conditions would you accept that CfE was the problem. If there are none, then the issue of falsifibility is a problem here, as it is with constructivist theories and practice in general.

      5. You are making the assumption here that a subject in school is the same as a discipline. It is not. Many subjects (eg Geography) are inter-disciplinary. The key is to make visible disciplinary knowledge and its modes of inquiry in whatever way we choose to recontextualise it in schools, whether through subjects or hybridised approach such as social studies (a well established school subject in many countries) or through inter-disciplinary structures such as rich tasks. I am not arguing against disciplinary knowledge by the way – I have on record as criticising CfE for its lack of attention to knowledge questions. I am just suggesting that traditionally configured subjects are not always the best way of acquiring such knowledge. And as I have suggested frequently in my posts, CfE (in terms of its policy and implementation) is part of the problem – but it is simp;litic to blame CfE for a decline in PISA scores, as many other factors come to bear in the complex social contexts that are schools.

  2. “ape the testing regimes so familiar in England”

    Unfortunately my memory of putting my kids thru a bog standard comp in these north easterly parts was the overwhelming reliance on testing, day in day out. At the time I thought this was simply a cheap, lazy approach but I appreciate now and especially after yesterday’s comment by the FM in Holyrood (“We will publish Primary school results next week”) that it is the establishment that needs data to wave at the voters.

    CfE was the establishment’s reaction to poor teaching in Scotland. It is unfortunate that other countries found us out by catching up so quickly in this modern world. The First Minister, to me, seemed to lose her nerve yesterday and promise radical reforms. If CfE has taught anyone anything it is that too much progress in an open society is difficult to manage. You are right to say let’s hold our nerve. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and time will tell whether our politicians are up to the job. I am optimistic because I have faith in kids, good teachers and dedicated Heads.

    1. It’s clear that CfE was attempting to improve pupil engagement and make learning more active, so I have some sympathy for the experiences your children may have had with endless testing. I’m disheartened, however, that there is a sweeping assertion that there was ‘poor teaching in Scotland’ prior to CfE—there is no evidence for this at a national level. The term ‘bog standard comprehensive’ was an unfortunate (and unfounded) choice of description for [England’s] secondary schools when it was first used by Alastair Campbell in 2001. Comprehensive schools in Scotland have been the reason behind the massive expansion in the number of young people gaining better qualifications and going on to further and higher education. Those who bemoan the ‘bog standard comp’ perhaps hanker for the days of selection and the senior secondary school (where the learning could often be less than ‘active’). However, I am unaware of people lamenting the strengths of the junior secondary school and wishing we could have it back.

      1. Well the PISA results would indicate otherwise. If the CfE were a panacea to poor teaching then the fact that it was implemented well in some schools would have led to a rise in results not a dip. If it were not implemented then the results would have remained static. If poor implementation leads to a decline in results then there is an issue about what is lost by replacing the previous curriculum with CfE.

      2. I’m not sure I follow your logic here. Poor implementation of any written curriculum (especially if practitioners are confused) is surely going to lead to decline if it replaces good implementation of a well-established (albeit imperfect curriculum).

  3. Re Paul’s comment, CfE was more importantly a reaction to twenty years of neo-liberalistic narrowing of educational vision.
    While much of what you say about implementation is true Mark, you omit the biggest single factor in causing confusion in its secondary school implementation, which is that curriculum design of the Senior Phase (15-18) was non-existent / never attempted, so that the way in which curricular purpose was expressed in the competitive end-destination remained much as before, with a clear pathway to a Higher (itself a comparative term which designates all other routes as ‘lower’) and with no clear rationale/frame for the educational experiences of the years 15-18. If neither you nor your teachers know where your compulsory education is taking you, and what the purpose of your current journey is relative to that destination, it’s not surprising that such confusion feeds down into the character of your earlier experiences. We need a strong framing of educational entitlement ‘for all’ to age 18, which retains breadth of purpose (i.e. in OECD terms a new and simpler narrative). This is the argument I posed for a ‘Graduation Certificate’ for all 18 year olds leaving compulsory education (whether by that stage in school, college, training, work or a combination of all of these).
    (Murphy, D. (2014) ‘Schooling Scotland’ (Edinburgh: Argyll Press)

    1. This blog is about holding our nerve following the PISA shock in Scotland. There are many reasons to be sceptical about the reliability and validity of the PISA methodology. However, if we (in any way) feel concerned that we are not high enough up the PISA league table (and I’m not sure we should be), perhaps we ought to consider whether those jurisdictions at the top of the table promote (mainly) skills based learning and avoid national testing at 16, 17 and 18? We can’t disparage what the PISA superstars cherish and at the same time be unhappy that we are not like them.

  4. A really helpful assessment; a lot which rings true. The place of knowledge is a continuing concerning – with it positioned, too frequently, in a binary with skills. The audit culture, and the wider accountability agenda, is well known. Discussion of TOK should play a more prominent role, in my opinion; some rightfully reject aspects of CfE as the underlying principles and theoretical concepts were not adequately (if at all) shared / explained.

    I wonder about ‘guidance’. Another dimension here, building on what you say, concerns the status of ‘guidance’. For some Local Authorities, ‘guidance’ is interpreted almost in statutory terms – while for others, it has been understood (at the end of a range of interpretations) as being suggestive of how one might do something. This has led to quite divergent approaches. It seems to me that the DFM’s recent letter managed to cut through this confusion due to the genre of the communication (a letter), and the clarity of its tone.

  5. I couldn’t agree more in respect of the approach to the implementation of CfE. I seem to recall that in the early days of deliberations it was recognised that there was a growing concern that pupils from Primary 6 – Secondary 2 were the ones who were beginning to suffer due to having a wider knowledge base, largely because of access to the internet.
    I still believe that this is where we need to target development and change. Primary schools and secondary schools have just got to get better at communicating and sharing resources.
    I was speaking to a young person recently who began S1 in August 2016. She admitted to being bored in most classes because not one teacher had ascertained what the pupils already knew. They were being ‘introduced’ to Word documents and Power Points as if this was a new skill to acquire. In reality pupils in P1/P2 can throw a Power Point together in the blink of an eye.
    Unless we can get to grips with prior learning, effective personalisation and choice as well as challenging our expectations we can expect future generations to switch off from school – not learning – because teachers have lost the confidence to be proactive in planning and implementation.
    We need to make time to learn from the young people we aim to inspire so that we all engage in an excellent curriculum.

    1. PISA showed clearly that,despite the 5-14 triage, something is wrong at Junior High level in downtown Scot-edu. The problem is the yoyo that is educational economics: famine to (well not really – only if your lucky) feast. Michael Gove’s solution was revolution and certainly in the centre of England, where I holiday, there is optimism and families looking forward.

      Another problem has been the false dawn presented by digital & all its wonderful data. It is clear (some might say) where the problems lay geographically in an area, the subsequent allocation of resources seems to be driven by Toblerone economics ie peak funding for some. As an experiment I invite you to contrast your broad locale with the picture in Newham where there are 21 secondary education options –

  6. I agree cfe is not the problem. Implementation in some councils was woefully inadequate. There has been a lack of review and evaluation. My daughter was in the guinea pig year and I was a teacher in her school. The biggest problem was not cfe, it was school leadership who were fixated on a belief that increasing timetable classes in English and maths would improve English and Maths ( of course the only way to achieve this was by reducing practical, pointless subjects like art and Design, HE and tech ). Any discussion at the time was ruthlessly crushed. Needless to say this grand experiment was fairly disastrous. This is what happens when heads are given too much control. My question would be how well are councils evaluating CFE and GIRFEC both go hand in hand. I know the answer in Argyll and Bute!! Although I live in hope. And By the way I was and Art and Design teacher… interesting article though.

  7. Just a thought, which I’m sure others have already asked about: if CfE does turn out to be methodologically flawed, surely hoping that it will be fully implemented is not going to solve the problem. Things might get worse if you fully implement a curriculum model which is unhelpful to learning. You might have been spared the worst effects so far by that very failure to fully implement it which you mention above.

    1. An interesting thought – I am, however, convinced of the general direction of CfE. My issues lie with its development, although that does include certain policy features which have encouraged instrumental approaches to its development.

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