Over the past couple of months, I have spoken at several events (research seminars, Education Scotland’s Excellence in Headship programme, etc.) about ideas in our new book (Priestley et al., 2021), Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Foremost amongst these has been the idea that curriculum is made (and remade) across different sites of activity within education systems. In particular, I have been asked about meso curriculum making, as this is an idea that appears to be unfamiliar to many. In this blog post, I will explore this idea briefly, showing how well-developed meso curriculum making seems to be in some countries, as illustrated in the case studies in our book, a crucial element in successful enactment of curriculum policy into practice. I start with some general thoughts about curriculum making.

Curriculum making

In the book, we draw upon case studies from nine countries to illustrate the idea of curriculum making, to which there are at least three dimensions.

  • The notion of curriculum as social practice; something that is made by practitioners and other actors (e.g. policy developers) working with each other.
  • The multiple layers or sites of education systems, across which curriculum is made in its various forms, for example schools and district offices, policymaking arenas, and national agencies.
  • The various practices which comprise curriculum, including: the selection of knowledge/content; pedagogical approaches; organization of teaching (e.g. timetabling); and the production of resources and infrastructure for supporting curriculum making in schools.

These dimensions are captured in the table below.

Site of activityExamples of activityExamples of actors
SupraTransnational curricular discourse generation, policy borrowing and lending; policy learningOECD; World Bank; UNESCO; EU
MacroDevelopment of curriculum policy frameworks; legislation to establish agencies and infrastructureNational governments, curriculum agencies
MesoProduction of guidance; leadership of and support for curriculum making; production of resourcesNational governments; curriculum agencies; district authorities; textbook publishers; curriculum brokers; subject-area counsellors
MicroSchool level curriculum making: programme design; lesson-planningPrincipals; senior leaders; middle leaders; teachers
NanoCurriculum making in classrooms and other learning spaces: pedagogic interactions; curriculum eventsTeachers; students

(Priestley et al. 2021)

This view of curriculum strongly emphasises the fact that curriculum making is systemic. As Michael Connolly reminds us, curriculum:

“is a complex system involving teachers, students, curricular content, social settings, and all manner of impinging matters ranging from the local to the international. It is a system that needs to be understood systemically. The question is […] how it all works together.” (Connelly, 2013, p. ix).

Meso curriculum making: ‘strengthening the middle’

Within any education system, meso curriculum making is activity which sits between policy and schools – in other words curriculum making that connects practitioners with policy. At a basic level, meso curriculum making can comprise written guidance on policy, but we saw evidence across Europe of more nuanced and developed activity than the simple provision of glossy booklets and websites. These included processes for sense-making in Finland, and the provision of leadership, networking opportunities and professional learning for schools (e.g. the Subject Counsellor in Cyprus, Junior Cycle Teams in Ireland). These examples are all premised on a view of meso curriculum making as support, whether this be through fostering understanding of new policy that goes beyond slogans and soundbites, or though the facilitation of local curriculum making via leadership or connecting teachers with each other. They do not emphasise externally imposed accountability, but instead focus more on developing teachers’ agency to become curriculum makers.

Misguided curriculum making

The above discussion casts strong doubt on many of the ways in which curriculum policy has come to be made and implemented in recent years in many countries. System complexity readily leads to unintended consequences. Attempts to micro-manage policy implementation, for example through over-specified teacher proof curricula (so-called input regulation), have been shown to be ineffective. Fidelity from policy to practice is a pipe dream, rendered impossible by the inevitable processes of interpretation, mediation, and translation that occur as professionals operationalize curriculum policy across widely different settings.

More recent trends for less prescriptive curricula, accompanied by a rhetoric of schools and teacher autonomy, have ostensibly afforded greater agency in curriculum making. They have, however, often been accompanied a removal of support, and its replacement by output regulation, through performance indicators, evaluative use of attainment data, benchmarking and external scrutiny, which have combined to erode teacher autonomy as effectively as did their more prescriptive predecessors. Moreover, these approaches, with their emphasis on evaluation methodologies, have led to a performative audit culture in our schools, intensive bureaucracy, increased workload, perverse incentives and instrumental decision making.

Curriculum making in Scotland

In Scotland, the development of Curriculum for Excellence has been characterised by much of the above. As a result, the curriculum remains, in my opinion, at best only partially enacted in many schools. Curriculum making has often tended to be driven by imperatives other than the core purposes and values of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). This can be seen in secondary schools, where the crucial S1-3 Broad General Education phase, intended as a foundational stage of education, remains, more often than not, as little more than a fragmented preparation for the senior qualifications phase that follows. It is also visible in primary schools, where a narrow focus on literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing, and STEM seems to be crowding out other subject areas. In my view, this situation is largely a result of two defining characteristics of the Scottish education system. The first is hierarchy. Scotland is most certainly not short of educational ideas and initiatives (or reams of written guidance); but many of these are formulated in offices remote from schools and imposed externally. I have seen plenty of evidence from teachers of examples where innovation has been discouraged because it is seen as straying from official priorities; these include a headteacher instructed by the local authority that curriculum development was not to be on the school plan because the immediate imperative was to raise attainment, and a teacher told that she could not cover a topical subject with a primary class (who had expressed an interest in this) because the priorities were numeracy and literacy. The second characteristic is an over-emphasis on evaluation methodologies, often external to the school, which might be termed ‘evaluationitis’. This can encourage competition rather than collaboration between schools. Even where evaluation is done internally (for example the use of HGIOS 4 indicators), these are often evidenced primarily for an external audience, and become quite performative. And even where there has been a serious attempt to introduce new meso curriculum making structures, Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) established as infrastructure to support the development of practice in schools, this worthy initiative has been captured by the twin blight of hierarchy and evaluationitis; the RICs seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their time and resources generating performance data and evaluating their own initiatives.  In combination, I would argue that these two features of Scottish education have militated against constructive curriculum making in the context of CfE.

Where next?

It is of course easy to criticise without offering alternatives, and I propose to sketch out here how meso curriculum making in Scotland might be reconfigured to make it more effective. This is fundamentally about developing new strategies that are more participative.

“Curriculum making strategies that allow actors to experience themselves as trusted and capable participants in curriculum making and make sense of it together with others are the most effective ones – ‘effective’ meaning here that people relate to the aims of the curriculum they co-construct and feel ownership, and through that are willing to adapt and develop not only curriculum, but also the educational system and settings within which they work” (Alvunger, et al., pp. 288-9).

I would argue that the forthcoming OECD report into the Scottish curriculum, like the ongoing pandemic, will offer an opportunity for reflection on what matters in education – a moment in which sacred cows can be questioned, and where real change may, for a short period, be possible. This will take some courage, as it will mean challenging some of the institutional structures and cultural assumptions that underpin the system; but it is necessary if we are to realise some of the laudable ambitions for the system set out in CfE, and in accompanying policies such as the empowered system, which aspire to maximise teacher agency.

A good start is a refocusing of macro policy making, from a primary focus on the measurement of outputs to a greater emphasis on the design of quality inputs. This will require curriculum policy as conceptual framing rather than prescriptive regulation. I note here that the ‘technical form’ of the curriculum (Luke, et al., 2012) – curriculum framed as ‘measurable’ outputs – exerts particular effects on schools and teacher curriculum making, and consideration should be given to reframing this approach. Greater consideration needs to be given to policies which undermine or act in tension with curriculum goals, especially the evaluative use of data for accountability purposes. Importantly, macro curriculum making includes creating the conditions for curriculum making in different parts of the system – this points to the important role of the government in reconfiguring the infrastructure for meso curriculum making. This will involve the allocation of significant resources – and it also involves affording trust to professionals.

As we indicate in the book, meso curriculum making seems to be a highly significant factor in fostering constructive curriculum making in schools, and this seems to work well when it actively involves teachers. In my view, this activity needs to be completely reconfigured in Scotland, mitigating the effects of hierarchy and evaluationitis. In practice this might mean the following:

  • Revisioning the RICs, so that they cease to be yet another layer in the hierarchy, with performance management functions. Instead, their explicit focus should be on supporting practice, and they should act as a conduit for pooling local authority resources to support curriculum making in schools.
  • Re-structuring the RICS as teacher networks. This means fewer full-time staff, and more recourse to teachers currently working in schools, perhaps through 50/50 school/RIC secondment arrangements. Such teachers would simultaneously have their feet both in the day-to-day world of teaching and have opportunities to develop their capacity as curriculum makers through leadership roles across schools. Importantly, they would seem less remote from schools than the current system of full-time secondees working in Education Scotland and the RICs.

These measures would serve to shift the curriculum making focus from an individual, departmental or single school level activity to one that draws more widely on cooperation across schools, and would do much to address common criticisms; that the curriculum is the responsibility of individuals and that curriculum making often entails reinventing the wheel across multiple settings.

While the structural barriers in the Scottish system would make establishing such an approach difficult, we also currently have opportunities. As I stated previously, the pandemic and OECD review have created a window for change. Moreover, Scotland has developed excellent system capacity in recent years, through the thousands of teachers completing funded Master’s level study; these people are an excellent resource for the system, but we need to start trusting them more, and we need to utilise their expertise in more imaginative ways.

The sort of approach that I envision here has great potential to transform the ways in which we plan, enact and evaluate educational practice. Teacher networks might serve as crucibles for developing subject specific resources across groups of schools and fostering critical system level curriculum development based on cooperation rather than on competition. They may act as a conduit for operating the sorts of national assessment and moderation systems needed if Scotland overhauls its qualifications following the OECD review. Moreover, such networks provide an excellent basis for peer-evaluation of practice, with the potential in the long term to provide an effective replacement for the current system of external inspections. In all three examples, I see opportunities to build the capacity of the system for improvement, and to enhance the agency of teachers as curriculum makers. Emerging evidence suggests that this has been exactly what happened in Wales, where Pioneer Teachers have been involved in macro curriculum policy making, and meso curriculum support and leadership, while continuing to work in schools for part of their time.  In the case of the Welsh Pioneer Teachers, an outcome has been the development of significant curriculum making capacity amongst a sizeable cohort of teachers (Priestley, et al., 2019). This has to be a good thing, with the outcomes of better curriculum making, more meaningful educational experiences for our young people, and ultimately a more coherent education system.

References

Alvunger, D., Soini, T., Philippou, S. & Priestley, M. (2021). Conclusions: Patterns and trends in curriculum making in Europe. In: M. Priestley, D. Alvunger, S. Philippou. & T. Soini (Eds.), Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts (pp. 273-293). Bingley: Emerald.

Connelly, F.M. (2013). Foreword. In: Deng, Z., Gopinathan, S., & Lee, C. K. E. (Eds.), Globalization and the Singapore curriculum: From policy to classroom (pp. vii-xii).  Singapore: Springer.

Luke, A., Woods, A., & Weir, K. (2012) Curriculum Design, Equity and the Technical Form of the Curriculum. In:  A. Luke, A. Woods & K. Weir (Eds.), Curriculum, syllabus design and equity: A primer and model (pp. 1-5).  New York, NY: Routledge.

Priestley, M., Crick, T. & Hizli Alkan, S. (2019). The co-construction of a national curriculum: the role of teachers as curriculum policy makers in Wales. Paper presented at the ECER conference, 5 September 2019, 3-6 September 2019, Hamburg, Germany.

Priestley, M., Alvunger, D., Philippou, S. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald.

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