Curriculum: concepts and approaches

In my dealings with teachers, school leaders and policy actors, I am often struck by the need for education professionals to develop more nuanced concept maps relating to the curriculum. The following text is material written for our undergraduates, and may be useful/of interest to people working in the field.

What is a curriculum?

Curriculum is a contested and often misunderstood concept. At a simple level, the curriculum simply means a course of study. The word is derived from the Latin word meaning racecourse or race, and has come to mean a general course, conveying the notion of going somewhere in a predefined direction. Indeed, this simple definition is one that is current in many schools, where the curriculum is seen largely as the glossy booklets that contain the content to be taught.

However, such a conception of curriculum is clearly inadequate for understanding the complex processes of schooling in today’s society. A more sophisticated definition is required, and there have been many attempts to provide one. For example, a Dictionary of Education (Rowntree, 1981) offers the following definition:

[Curriculum] can refer to the total structure of ideas and activities developed by an educational institution to meet the learning needs of students, and to achieve desired educational aims. Some people use the term to refer simply to the content of what is being taught. Others include also the teaching and learning methods involved, how students’ attainment is measured and the underlying philosophy of education.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, in line with this more holistic view, states that the curriculum is ‘the totality of all that is planned for children and young people throughout their education’ (Scottish Government, 2008).

Such definitions are helpful in that they provide a broad conception of the education that occurs in schools. However, this sort of broad definition can also be confusing, as the term curriculum comes to mean different things to different people. For these reasons, it is necessary to be clear about the various facets that make up the curriculum, and the ways in which these facets link together and interact in practice. The following terminology helps to make sense of the complexity that is the curriculum.

  • Curriculum – an umbrella term denoting the totality of the learning experience of children and young people in school. Considering the curriculum would thus include the questions of what, how and why listed below, as well as assessment (evaluation).
  • Curriculum purposes – statements of what the curriculum is intended to achieve. These include narrowly defined outcomes or objectives, and more broadly defined aims or goals. This is the why of the curriculum, and is often (but not always) made explicit in official documents that comprise the curriculum framework.
  • Curriculum framework – the documents that outline the structure of the curriculum and its purposes. This also usually includes and the content to be taught – the what of the curriculum.
  • Curriculum provision – the systems and structures established in schools to organise teaching, for example timetabling. This is the how of the curriculum.
  • Pedagogy (often referred to as instruction in the literature, especially American writing) – the teaching strategies and learning activities planned to achieve the aims and fulfil the planned framework. This is also the how of the curriculum.
  • Assessment – the methods used to judge the extent of students’ learning (e.g. tests, homework, observation). Assessment might be used formatively (to provide feedback to learners to inform future learning), summatively (to provide a grade) or evaluatively (to judge whether teaching has been effective).

The relationship between these elements is complex and can be problematic. I provide several examples to illustrate this point:

  • The particular curriculum planning model that is outlined in the framework can exert a major influence on pedagogy. For instance, a framework that emphasises content to be learned might encourage teacher-centred approaches to teaching, whereas a model based on processes and skills may encourage activities that are student-centred.
  • The organisation of provision exerts an effect on pedagogy. For example, inquiry-based methods such as cooperative learning can be difficult if the school day is divided into small teaching blocks, as is the case in most secondary schools.
  • A heavy emphasis on assessment can encourage narrow ‘teach to the test’ approaches

Curriculum planning is fundamentally a political process. In other words, it involves questions of value and is subject to disagreement. Different people have different views about what should be taught (or indeed omitted – the null curriculum). An important question is ‘whose curriculum?’: who is it for, and who chooses? Some believe that content should be chosen to meet children’s needs and/or interests? Others suggest that there are bodies of knowledge that have intrinsic value, and which should be taught to all children. For example, social realists such as Young and Muller (2010) believe that children will be disadvantaged if they are not taught knowledge from the academic disciplines (which are recognised bodies of knowledge developed over generations by scholars using rigorous methods).

These current debates are often reduced to spurious categories: traditional vs. progressive curricula; knowledge vs. skills; subjects vs. interdisciplinary approaches; teacher as sage-on-the-stage vs. teacher as guide-on-the-side, etc. It is far more fruitful to consider these dichotomies in a more nuanced way, for example:

  • Knowledge vs. skills is better seen as curriculum balance between different types of knowledge that are all essential for a balanced education: propositional knowledge (knowing that), procedural knowledge (knowing how) and epistemic knowledge (the approach to inquiry, such as scientific method, that characterise different disciplines).
  • An accomplished teacher will both teach directly and facilitate learning, depending on the purposes of the learning being undertaken.

This in turn raises further questions about the choice and organisation of curriculum content. Should the curriculum be structured around subjects (the prevailing secondary model in Scotland) or themes (a primary school approach)? Should school knowledge focus on ‘learning that’ (propositional knowledge) or ‘learning how’ (skills)? Or is this a false dichotomy? Should there be a core curriculum for all young people, or should there be choice? What about relevance to real life? Or is the school curriculum a sabre-tooth curriculum (Peddiwell, 1939), which rarely changes and drifts out of date as society evolves?

The curriculum operates (or is made) in different ways at different levels:

  • Supra – transnational ideas about education
  • Macro – national level policy intentions
  • Meso – policy guidance (ES, LEA)
  • Micro – school-level curricular practices
  • Nano – classroom interactions

(Thijs & van den Akker, 2009)

Curriculum policy is sometimes referred to as the prescribed curriculum. This is the written curriculum, embodied in a school’s documents, curriculum guides, and programme of studies booklets. It is the ‘official’ curriculum. In most cases, the written curriculum is an instrument of control. Written curricula are essential, but they do not always reflect what is taught. At the level of practice the terms described curriculum, enacted curriculum and received curriculum are sometimes used. The first two terms comprise the taught curriculum – what teachers say they teach, and what they are actually observed to teach. The received curriculum is the ‘bottom line’ curriculum, in other words what the students actually learn. It is the most important curriculum of all; but it is also the one which is most difficult to quantify, and the one over which we have the least control. The described, enacted and received curricula can be very different to the prescribed curriculum, as teachers actively adapt official policy to meet local circumstances, and as learners assimilate and understand what is being taught in very different ways. As can be seen, curriculum is an inexact art form rather than a precise science. (See Thijs & van den Akker, 2009 for a more detailed discussion of this topic.)

A final point to consider concerns what is known as the hidden curriculum. Virtually everything that happens in schools that is not subject to reflection and intention can be seen as part of the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum of any institution is made up of:

  • The non-academic learning promoted by schools, through the attitudes, values, and culture promoted by the school (e.g. enforcement of rules).
  • The physical environment of the school (e.g. a shabby building may encourage vandalism).
  • The social environment of the school (e.g. a culture of bullying or bad behaviour amongst students).
  • The unconscious and unintended teaching that occurs in the classroom (e.g. the teacher who subconsciously but overtly gives preferential treatment to girls may encourage the development of certain behaviours and attitudes amongst both male and female students).

With the above in mind, I offer an alternative definition of curriculum: the multi-layered social practices, including infrastructure, pedagogy and assessment, through which education is structured, enacted and evaluated. This requires attention to:

  • Curriculum for what, by whom … and for whom?
  • The importance of context.
  • Teachers as (professional) curriculum makers: no curriculum development without teacher development (Stenhouse, 1975).
  • The role of system dynamics as barriers and drivers to curriculum making.
  • The perspectives and experiences of traditionally marginalised groups.

Over the last 30 years, curriculum has become a key political issue, as governments around the world have increasingly tried to control what is taught and learned in schools. Arguably this has been unsuccessful, with classroom teaching remaining today much as it was in the past; single teacher delivery, teacher centred methods and passive learners (Elmore, 2004).

Three curriculum planning models

There are a number of distinct approaches – or more accurately starting points – to curriculum planning. It is necessary to be clear on which model is being used to ensure coherence and conceptual clarity. Kelly (1999) offers three archetypal curriculum planning models and suggests that each model is inextricably linked with both underlying purposes and conceptions of knowledge, as well as with pedagogy. Kelly’s models are:

  • Curriculum as content and education as transmission.
  • Curriculum as product and education as instrumental.
  • Curriculum as process and education as development.

It is necessary to stress (again) that these models represent starting points for curriculum planning, rather than mutually exclusive categories; for example, supporters of the process model, would not argue that content is unnecessary or unimportant, simply that the selection of content is a secondary consideration, to be debated once the broad principles of the curriculum have been established.

Curriculum as content and education as transmission

The first of Kelly’s models takes the selection of content as its starting point. There have been systematic attempts to justify curriculum planning based upon choice of content. These can be broadly categorised as philosophical and cultural variants of the content model.

In the 1960s and 1970s the philosophical work of R.S. Peters and Paul Hirst dominated thinking in the UK about the nature and structure of the curriculum. Peters’ Ethics and Education (1966) and Hirst’s Knowledge and the Curriculum (1974) presented a powerful case for a content-based curriculum, comprising forms of knowledge that were regarded as ‘intrinsically worthwhile’. This view seemed to provide a justification for a traditional curriculum structured round ‘disciplines’ or ‘subjects’. Being educated, according to this model, requires initiation into the various forms of knowledge, each of which has their own central organising concepts and characteristic methods of investigation that had been developed over time. Drawing on this work, social realists (e.g. Young and Muller, 2010) have recently suggested that there is a distinction between disciplinary knowledge and everyday knowledge. They suggest that the former should form the basis for the school curriculum, and that the latter is not a matter for schools.

An alternative approach to rationalising choice of content derives from a concern to ensure that the curriculum reflects the culture of society. Denis Lawton, who was influential in policy debate in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s (Lawton, 1975), has suggested that cultural analysis is the starting point for curriculum planning, rather than the analysis of knowledge. According to Lawton, it is necessary to sub-divide culture in a way which is manageable yet meaningful; to achieve this he posited a set of nine cultural invariants – categories or systems that he claimed are universal to all societies. These are the socio-political, economic, communications, rationality, technology, morality, belief, aesthetic, and maturation systems.

At the level of policy, however, selection of content tends to be based upon more mundane considerations. Kelly (1999) has demonstrated that much selection is done for political ends, what he refers to as instrumental selection. Goodson (1995) suggests that content is often proposed in the face of moral panic about national decline. Goodson and Marsh (1996) have documented the ways in which school subjects evolve through various stages to become unquestioned components of the curriculum – fundamentally a socio-political process of turf wars and struggle over resources. Often such selection simply reflects tradition (the subject has always been taught in such a fashion) or is made for pragmatic reasons (for instance the availability of resources).

Curriculum as product and education as instrumental

A second archetype identified by Kelly is the objectives or outcomes model. Objectives and outcomes are clear statements which seek to define what students know or can do as a result of their education. This model has a long and somewhat controversial history, particularly in the USA, with roots in scientific management and behaviourist psychology. In the UK, objectives became a fundamental part of vocational Education and Training. They also form the basis of many national curriculum developments around the world; Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is party defined through hundreds of Experiences and Outcomes, set out in levels to reflect the age and development of children and young people.

Many educationists have criticised attempts to define the developmental process of education in the form of rigid and predefined objectives. Dewey (1938), for instance, talked of the tendency of objectives to change as you approach them, and Kelly (1989) stated that ‘to adopt a …… linear view of teaching and learning, is to have rejected as largely irrelevant the insights offered by studies on child development’. Stenhouse (1975) saw objectives-based curricula as being too narrow in focus, too teacher-centred and insufficiently sensitive to the complexities of learning and the dynamics of the classroom. According to Stenhouse, it is ‘an ends-means model which sets arbitrary horizons to one’s efforts’. Predefinition of objectives is said to deny the validity of the original experience that children bring with them to the classroom, increase the difficulties involved in local curriculum planning, and may assume that the norms of present day society are fixed. Furthermore, such narrowing of learning, especially when objectives are tied to testing and when in turn the results of such tests are used to evaluate schools, has been linked with ‘teaching to the test’ approaches.

Kelly (1999) has noted the tendency for many modern curricula to conflate the content and objectives models, specifying content as objectives. Scotland’s former 5-14 framework can certainly be said to fit this model, with broad content being expressed as objectives that then form the basis of assessment decisions about individual students, data being subsequently used to compare schools’ performance. Kelly refers to such conflation as the mastery model of curriculum.

Curriculum as process and education as development

The process model of curriculum is designed to be flexible and open-ended, rather than pre-determined, maximising the potential for growth and development. Process curricula are based upon intrinsic principles and procedures rather than upon extrinsic objectives. Typically, they are predicated around a view of what an autonomous adult should become as a result of their education and a learning process (often dialogical, inquiry-based and experiential) that helps achieve this state. According to Kelly (1999), a process curriculum is fundamentally a curriculum based upon democratic values, comprising a set of structured activities enabling students to practise citizenship, to develop the capacity to question critically. Typically, teachers using the process approach will discuss and make sense of the core concepts or big ideas of education (the broad goals or purposes) and develop fit-for-purpose practices (content and pedagogy) to realise them.

However, Stenhouse acknowledged two important caveats in relation to the process model. First, much depends on the quality of the teacher:

  • Any process model rests on teacher judgement rather than on teacher direction. It is far more demanding on teachers and thus far more difficult to implement in practice. (Stenhouse, 1975)
  • Second, ‘the process model of curriculum development raises problems for the assessment of student work’ (Stenhouse, 1975). There is tension between the desire to assess objectively through formal, public examinations and the informal, critical, developmental learning that Stenhouse advocates.


The above discussion suggests that the school curriculum is complex, involving considerations of how policy translates into practice and considerable variation in how this happens from school to school. The process of planning and implementing a curriculum is therefore difficult and uncertain. A successful curriculum must pay attention to underlying purposes of education. How, for example does it ensure that young people are socialised into society, while avoiding indoctrination and developing individual capacity for active citizenship? How does it make sure that young people develop skills for work without becoming too focused on narrow training? How does it cover essential content, given that this changes as society changes, without becoming overcrowded? How can it remain relevant in a pluralist society where there are competing demands for different content and differing views as to what is important? Where do decisions about content lie? With the teacher? The politician? Parents? Or students? How does it set the scene for learning that is active and teaching that is inspirational?


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education (New York, Collier-Macmillan).

Elmore, R.F. (2004). School Reform from the Inside Out: policy, practice, performance (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Education Press)

Goodson, I.F. (1995). The Making of Curriculum: some collected essays (London, The Falmer Press).

Goodson, I.F. & Marsh, C.J. (1996). Studying School Subjects: a guide (London, The Falmer Press).

Hirst, P.H. (1974). Knowledge and the Curriculum (London, Routledge).

Hirst, P.H. (1993). Education, knowledge and practices. In R. Barrow & P. White (eds.) Essays in honour of Paul Hirst (London, Routledge).

Kelly, A. V. (1989). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 2nd edition (London, Paul Chapman Publishing).

Kelly, A. V. (1999). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 4th edition (London: Sage).

Lawton, D. (1975). Class, Culture and the Curriculum (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Peddiwell, A.J. (1939). The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. Online at

Peters, R.S. (1966). Ethics and Education (London, Allen & Unwin).

Rowntree, D. (1981). A Dictionary of Education (London, Harper & Row).

Scottish Government (2008). Building the Curriculum 3: a framework for learning and teaching (Edinburgh, Scottish Government).

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development (London, Heinemann).

Thijs, A. & van den Akker, J. (Eds.) (2009). Curriculum in Development (Entschede Netherlands, SLO). Online at

Young, M. & Muller, J. (2010). Three educational scenarios for the future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45, 11-27.


Curriculum narrowing in Scotland’s secondary schools: what exactly is happening?

Last week, the sporadic debate about curriculum narrowing under Curriculum for Excellence – a discussion which seems to emerge every year or so – blew up again in Parliament. This time, the issue was subject to scrutiny by the Education and Skills committee, and subsequently led to a clash of party leaders in the chamber. According to Ruth Davidson, the Conservative Leader, ‘we have seen attainment in National exams down by a third compared to the old standard grades’.  First Minister Nicola Sturgeon responded by stating, ‘When we look at National 5 level, the proportion leaving school with an award has risen nine percentage points, it was 77.1% in 2009-10, it was 86.1% in 2016-17 and at Higher level the gap between the richest and the poorest has fallen by almost seven percentage points’ (source:

According to these arguments, attainment at National 5 has both fallen and risen simultaneously, something that is clearly impossible. This paradoxical situation is symptomatic of public debate on a topic, which has genuine implications for education, but which is not understood by many of the players presenting arguments and counter-arguments. Many of these arguments are based upon a superficial analysis of publicly available data on examinations results, which does not fully capture this complex and nuanced situation. Moreover, the situation has been exacerbated by the misleading presentation of enrolment as attainment. So what exactly is happening?

First, analysis of available data from 2012-2017 (SQA qualifications data, school leaver data, etc.) illustrates clearly that attainment is rising. More young people are leaving school with higher levels of qualifications and, moreover, this effect is especially marked for students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. It is therefore inaccurate to claim that attainment has fallen.

Second, it is clear that the curriculum in the senior phase (notably in S4 as students undertake N3/4/5 qualifications) is narrowing. Prior to the introduction of the new CfE qualifications, it was usual for students to take eight qualifications at this stage of education. Six options is much more usual now, and in some cases as few as five, meaning that there has been a significant reduction in the number of subjects studied in S4. Our recent analysis of school level data relating to qualifications suggests that this effect is especially marked for students in schools serving low SES areas. In other words, provision of education in the senior phase seems to be socially stratified: if you attend school in a wealthy area, you are more likely to be able to study seven or eight subjects at N5, whereas if you attend school in a relatively disadvantaged area, the number of subjects studied is likely to be fewer. We do not yet know why this is occurring – more research is needed – but we do know from the data that it is happening

There are several more points that need to be made about this curriculum narrowing. First, I wish to reiterate that this is not a drop in attainment, as has been claimed by some. It is a fall in the number of qualifications taken. It is misleading to describe a drop in enrolment as a drop in attainment, as has been the case in much recent political debate and media coverage. That is not to say that a drop in enrolment is not a significant issue. There is evidence, for example, that reduced choice in S4 has disproportionally impacted on the uptake of Modern Languages (although this is a long term trend that preceded the introduction of new qualifications in 2014) and, to a lesser extent arts subjects. Presumably this is because students will choose subjects deemed to be more important (English, STEM), and it is likely that there will be effects on subsequent uptake of these subjects at Higher and beyond. Again, we do not have a clear picture of these effects, and more research is needed.

This phenomenon raises some troubling questions. I accept that the balance between breadth and attainment is contested terrain. It is likely that narrowing choice, particularly for low SES student populations who have traditionally struggled to attain good qualifications, is a factor behind the raised attainment previously noted. One might argue that we are serving these students well, if we enable them to attain grades that get them into positive destinations, including further and higher education, and that a loss of breadth is thus an acceptable compromise. However, this is to take an instrumental view of education as merely a route in qualifications and positive destinations. There is a further question about whether we are selling these young people short if we send them into a complex and turbulent world (characterised for instance by Brexit, climate change, social upheaval, etc.) without an adequately broad education that affords them knowledge of that world. The social stratification in current trends is particularly troubling. Another issue worth mentioning, as raised in England by head of OFSTED Amanda Spielman last week, is the question whether decisions about curriculum provision are being made in the interests of students themselves, or for the benefit of schools. Put bluntly, are decisions to raise attainment through narrowing the curriculum about providing young people with better qualifications, or are they more about raising attainment to boost the image of the school within a highly performative education system.

From this discussion, two issues arise for me. The first is that we need more research on this issue, both to identify patterns and to understand them. This will prevent the sort of misleading claims that have been made in recent weeks. Second, we need a more mature public debate than that seen recently – one that explores the fundamental question ‘what are schools for?’, and one that seeks to pin down what sort of schooling we really want in Scotland.


For further detail on the analysis that informs this blog post, see annexe C (p.42), written by Dr Marina Shapira, of the papers of the 19 September 2018 meeting of the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee –

‘There be dragons’: redrawing the curriculum map in Wales

Here is the text of my post on the Welsh curriculum, originally posted at

The 2015 publication of Successful Futures marked a watershed moment in the history of education in Wales. The proposed new curriculum is a radical departure from recent top-down, teacher proof policy. It moves schools away from prescriptive content-led approaches to teaching, and affords teachers and schools considerable autonomy in developing a school-based curriculum to meet local needs.

The new Curriculum for Wales is typical, in many ways, of recent worldwide ‘new curriculum’ policy. It emphases the centrality of the learner, and the importance of developing so-called 21st century skills, to equip young people to thrive in modern complex democratic societies and in the workplace. It recognises that subjects, the ubiquitous approach to segmenting the secondary curriculum, may not always be the best way of organising teaching to ensure that young people develop the knowledge required to thrive in the modern world.

Moreover, like other ‘new curricula’ in countries such as Scotland and New Zealand, the new curriculum is open to critique, and faces considerable challenges in its enactment in schools. These curricula have been attacked for downgrading knowledge, blurring the well-established boundaries between everyday knowledge and disciplinary knowledge. Critics have derided their alleged focus on fuzzy skills and child centred learning. They have often attracted the pejorative label ‘progressive’. Furthermore, curricula in Scotland and elsewhere have suffered implementation problems. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD stated in December 2016 that, while Scotland had developed a bold and visionary approach, it still needed to move from an intended to an implemented curriculum. Our research suggests that a major issue lies in a gap between teachers’ prevalent practices and beliefs about education, and the implicit aims of the new curriculum.

Despite these anxieties, I believe that Wales is different. First, Wales is heeding the lessons from other countries, and has solicited the advice of researchers in some of the countries already developing this type of curriculum. Second, the Welsh curriculum developers have actively sought to put in place principles and processes that address some of the criticisms. The importance of knowledge has been foregrounded in the curriculum guidance. An explicit process of developing the curriculum from purposes of education – articulated in the Four Purposes and the ‘What matters?’ statements for each AoLE – has been set out clearly. The role of Pioneer Teachers will prove to be significant – as writers of the AoLE statements, and as facilitators of school-based curriculum development as the curriculum is translated into practice over the coming years. A major source of tension ion many new curricula – the practice of defining the curriculum via thousands of learning outcomes – will not happen in Wales, where the What Matters? Framework is a far more constructive approach to developing practice in schools.

All of the above should not detract from the challenges faced as schools step into the uncharted terrain of the future. Nevertheless, a few principles should help guide this journey of exploration. First, the starting point for curriculum development is not the content (or subjects) to be taught, but instead should be the purposes of education set out in the curriculum. Sense-making – through extensive professional dialogue – is an essential part of this process; if teachers do not understand the new curriculum, then they will not develop practices that are fit-for-purpose. Knowledge and skills – powerful knowledge – need to be taught with these purposes in mind. Similarly, educational methods need to be fit-for-purpose. Powerful pedagogies are as important for developing intellectual capacity as is powerful knowledge. The role of the Pioneer teachers and the regional consortia will be vital in developing the infrastructure to support curriculum development. And significantly, Wales will need to develop approaches to accountability and qualifications that serve rather than drive school’s practices.

If the above issues are addressed – and I am confident that the will is there to address them – then the new Welsh curriculum may well herald successful futures. The new curriculum is different to what came before, and will require different approaches and working patterns. Because it offers greater local flexibility and autonomy, it will require active engagement by all teachers in Wales. Experience from Scotland suggests that those teachers and schools that engaged early in process, making sense of CfE and developing a vision for it, were the same schools and teachers that made the most of its potential. It is worth remembering the words of curriculum scholar Lawrence Stenhouse – that there can be no curriculum development without teacher development. Both will be required to maximise the opportunities afforded by Successful Futures.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development (London, Heinemann).

The school curriculum in the UK: divergence on the Celtic fringe

This is the original version of the article published today in The Conversation ( – before all the editorial to-ing and fro-ing, and with its original title.

The National Curriculum introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s was a seminal development in UK education history. Applying to England, Northern Ireland and Wales (but not to Scotland, which has a tradition of educational independence from Westminster), the new curriculum was highly controversial. Content-rigid and overcrowded, this teacher-proof curriculum was widely decried by education experts as badly theorised and damaging to young people. These criticisms seemed to be borne out in practice, as the new curriculum was subject to review and revision throughout the 1990s. By the early years of the new millennium, new curricular forms were starting to emerge, first in Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2004.

These curricula were primarily characterised by a move away from the detailed specification of content to be taught, and involved a significant shift to school and teacher autonomy in terms of what should be taught. England, under New Labour, initially appeared to be heading in the same direction, following a major review of the National Curriculum (2007-2008). Following the election of the coalition government in 2010, however, New Labour’s reforms were ditched in favour of a more traditional approach to defining the curriculum, widely described as knowledge-rich and influenced by ideas about cultural literacy. Wales, on the other hand, has followed the other Celtic nations, announcing its own new curriculum in 2015.

The new curricula have been widely attacked. According to critics, they downgrade knowledge, effectively dumbing down learning, and over-emphasise skills, particularly those required for the workplace. They are derided as being progressive, an apparently pejorative term in today’s educational climate. They are criticised for blurring the boundaries between subjects, and thus undermining the foundations of all that is great and noble in British education.

While such criticisms invariably contain some truth, they have been unhelpful in defining and operationalising good education in British schools. They have created unhelpful dichotomies of traditional versus progressive, knowledge versus skills, and the teacher as a ‘sage on the stage’ versus the teacher as a ‘guide on the side’. A good – and balanced – education should attend to all of these dimensions.

The new Celtic curricula are in fact helpful for a number of reasons. They are all grounded in clearly specified purposes of education. In Scotland these are articulated as attributes and capabilities, set out under four headings known as the Four Capacities: Successful Learners, Responsible Citizens, Effective Contributors and Confident Individuals. In Northern Ireland, detailed learning objectives are set out under three headings, developing young people as: Individuals; Contributors to Society; and Contributors to the Economy and Environment. These statements of purpose seek to set out clearly what an educated young person should look like at the end of a stage of education, and are greatly preferable in my view to a curriculum apparently devoid of purposes, and framed solely as specification of content. Clear specification of purposes should enable schools to define content and methods that are fit-for-purpose, to develop the knowledge and skills necessary for successful lives as an adult – including active and critically engaged citizenship and successful career trajectories.

If this is progressive education, then I do not take issue with the term progressive. Indeed, the father of progressive education, the American philosopher John Dewey emphasised the importance of engaging with the accumulated wisdom of mankind.  I would further argue that it is the non-progressive elements of the new curricula that have been responsible for their patchy implementation and for some of the issues raised by critics. Foremost amongst these is the framing of the curricula as detailed learning outcomes – hundreds of statements arrayed into hierarchical levels. These are a throwback to the original National Curriculum in England, with its simplistic assumptions that learning is a neat linear progress, to be measured at every stage, rather than a messy and emergent developmental process that varies between individuals. In Scotland, the learning outcomes are, in my opinion, largely responsible for the rather patchy implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. As the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher stated on BBC news in 2016, Scotland needs to move from an intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum. Detailed learning outcomes have been linked to heavy duty accountability processes; they can encourage risk aversion and tick-box approaches to curriculum development in schools.

It is, therefore, really interesting to see the new iteration of this sort of curriculum emerging in Wales. The developers of a Curriculum for Wales seem to be cognisant of the problems afflicting these curricula elsewhere. Development materials have emphasised the importance of clearly identifying and making sense of educational purposes. They have highlighted the need for knowledge – as well as skills – to be prominent in the thinking of teachers, as they enact the curriculum in schools, while recognising that traditional subjects are only one way of articulating this knowledge; not handed down to Moses on tablets of stone, but nevertheless still a useful means of dividing the curricular cake along with more integrated approaches. And, crucially, the Welsh process acknowledges the importance of both teacher involvement in all stages of developing the new curriculum from policy to practice, and the need to reframe accountability processes that distort teacher decision-making. This highlights the vital role played by teacher sense-making, as well as the mechanisms and processes that support this.

The report launching a Curriculum for Wales was called Successful Futures. Time will tell whether this was prescient.

New breed of teachers; old breed of reaction

One of the big disappointments for me in the development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has been the lack of any perceptible system-wide development of the Broad General Education (BGE) phase in years one to three of the secondary school. To the casual observer, S1-3 in the secondary will look remarkably similar today to what it did pre-CfE, largely comprising a fragmented and disconnected set of subjects that mirror the subjects examined in the senior phase (S4-6), and indeed often seen as a dress-rehearsal for the serious business of passing the senior phase qualifications. Recent figures suggest that the typical school week of 30 periods (each of around 50 minutes) is experienced by pupils as between 15 and 20 separate subjects. In this context, I am reminded of Elliot Eisner’s (1992) observation that:

There is no occupation . .  in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program

Furthermore this is not a new phenomenon. John Dewey, writing as long ago as 1938, observed that:

Custom and convention conceal from most of us the extreme poverty of the traditional course of study, as well as its lack of intellectual organisation. It still consists, in large measure of a number of disconnected subjects made up of more or less independent items. An experienced adult may supply connections and see the different studies and lessons in perspective in logical relationships to one another and the world. To the pupil, they are likely to be curiously mysterious things which exist in school for some unknown purpose, and only in school

All of the above raises the question of why schooling is so stubbornly resistant to policy that seeks to change such practices, as CfE manifestly did. One could take the view, as is becoming fashionable with the new traditional turn in educational thinking, that the ‘traditional taxonomy’ of knowledge (to quote one teacher) has intrinsic value and/or that subjects are the best ways of dividing up the school week. I do not buy these arguments, while accepting that knowledge is fundamental to curriculum planning and that subjects may be an excellent means of dividing up the knowledge cake. First, knowledge is not the same as subjects. Subjects, as configured in schools, are not the end of education, but instead become a means (as applicable) of promoting the educational goal of educating young people. Thus, the question we should ask is not ‘what subjects do we teach?’, but instead ‘what does an educated person look like, what knowledge do they need to develop, and what means (including subjects-based provision) are best suited to achieving this?’ Going through this intellectual process of curriculum-making avoids subjects becoming set-in-stone entities – ends instead of means – as exemplified in Peddiwell’s curriculum parable ‘The Saber-Tooth Curriculum’ (see It will avoid, as I have argued previously on this blog, a situation where the curriculum becomes fragmented instead of holistic; incoherent and incomplete, with serious gaps in knowledge (e.g. little systematic exposure to political and sociological knowledge, or a History curriculum that focuses on the Nazis repeatedly).

Reasons for a lack of change in schooling are various, being primarily cultural and structural. A major issue lies in the familiarity of schooling to the wider population. Everyone has been to school, and thus everyone knows what schools are (should be) like. To suggest otherwise – to challenge the deeply ingrained grammar of schooling – is to challenge common-sense and to invite ridicule. Teachers too can be conservative in their thinking, and this is not pig-headed opposition to change, as some who advocate changing teachers’ mindsets may suggest, but due to deeply-held beliefs rooted in professional socialisation from their education and experience (and as Eisner also quipped, teacher professional socialisation begins at the age of five!). Research suggests that teachers who engage with research findings and new concepts about education as a part of a process of collaborative professional enquiry are likely to develop enhanced professional knowledge, and consequently become more readily able to envisage alternative educational futures (e.g. see Structural reasons include the set-up of a system geared primarily to qualifications, which rewards schools and teachers achieving high attainment in subjects. The tendency for school systems to encourage performativity has, of course, been well-documented in the research literature. And the professional education of teachers reinforces such thinking: in Scotland, for example, teachers train to be primary specialists (generalists who teach children) or secondary specialists (experts in a subject). This has led over time to a sharp dichotomy between primary and secondary schools, which are effectively very different institutions with different cultures and different practices. The corollary of this is that many pupils experience the transition as a dislocation that is not conducive to a coherent programme of education from 3-18.

It was, therefore, with a sense of resignation that I have read some of the reactions on Twitter and elsewhere to the announcement this week of a new GTCS teaching accreditation for teachers to span primary and secondary (see The criticisms invariably miss the point, in my view. This is not an attempt to fix a teacher shortage by widening the pool of teachers (as the article seems to suggest). Nor is it about diluting standards by putting non-specialists in front of classes (with unfortunate echoes of the hierarchical notion that secondary specialists are somehow superior to primary teachers). Instead it is about recognising that the BGE is about something different, and that a reconfigured curriculum needs reconfigured teachers. I am not here criticising either secondary or primary teachers, but simply acknowledging that the BGE is different, and therefore requires teachers with different skills; not complete generalists as has traditionally been the case in primary schools, or the more narrowly focused disciplinary specialists who will continue to be needed for senior teaching, but highly skilled teachers who can teach across a range of subjects at the crucial transition phase from P6 to S3. Such teachers will probably have a specialism as their central focus, but will be much more versatile than the current workforce at this level. I am reminded here that this would be far less controversial if such teaching were conducted in intermediate or middle schools, as used to be common in the UK, and is still the norm in other countries such as New Zealand.

For the above reasons, I very much welcome the new approach to accrediting teachers, and would indeed welcome the development of yet more varied routes, for example teachers educated and accredited to teach social studies and integrated science. I suspect that this is currently a challenge too far for the status quo in Scotland.

Regional Improvement Collaboratives: a new strengthened middle in Scottish education?

The recent and long-awaited publication of the Scottish Government’s review of governance ( is, in many respects, a welcome development. The practical steps outlined in this review have the potential to transform the ongoing development of Curriculum for Excellence by explicitly addressing some of the weaknesses in the curriculum development process to date. In particular, the establishment of Regional Improvement Collaboratives provides a constructive response to the OECD’s call for Scotland to ‘strengthen the middle’; to establish a meso-level infrastructure that will (to quote the review) ‘mean that hands on advice, support and guidance can flow directly to schools to support improvement’ (p.7). This in turn will facilitate more meaningful engagement in schools with the core principles of CfE, to address, in the words of the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, the need for Scotland to move from an ‘intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum’ ( BBC news on 6 December 2016).

In this context, the newly proposed Collaboratives look promising. According to the review:

New Regional Improvement Collaboratives […] will provide teams of professionals who have the singular focus of helping teachers to improve their practice. These teams will include sector and curriculum area specialists as well as additional support for learning experts such as educational psychologists (p.23).

This regional approach will involve decentralising some Education Scotland resources to support improvement closer to schools. It will also involve local authorities sharing resource at a regional level to ensure an enhanced improvement capability (p30).

This ‘national vision or framework to support collaboration’ (p.21) is supported by reference to the much cited McKinsey and co. report (, which states:

As the school systems we studied have progressed on their improvement journey, they seem to have increasingly come to rely on a “mediating layer” that acts between the centre and the schools. This mediating layer sustains improvement by providing three things of importance to the system: targeted hands-on support to schools, a buffer between the school and the centre, and a channel to share and integrate improvements across schools. (p. 6)

Readers of this blog will know that I have long argued for the development of a strong meso-level for supporting curriculum development (as opposed to meso-level structures that focus on audit and documentation; e.g. see I therefore very much welcome the general direction signalled by this review. Nevertheless, we should be aware of a number of potentially problematic issues as we take forward the recommendations of the review.

First, handing responsibility to teachers (both within the new Collaboratives and in schools) also means enhancing teachers’ agency (see This requires more than just rhetoric about autonomy. It requires establishing professional trust and developing contexts where teachers can exercise professional judgments, free from risk, and supported by access to cognitive, relational and material resources. A key issue here relates to the focus of the Collaboratives. Will they focus primarily on audit or on support? If they simply become beefed up local authorities focusing mainly on auditing performance against KPIs, rather than hands on leadership of curriculum development, then the new structures will not achieve their purpose.

Second, we need to take a nuanced look at how insights from other systems work in Scotland. International cherry-picking of other people’s policy is now a well-established international phenomenon. The governance review makes reference to how we might learn from other systems, for example: ‘countries such as Finland and Canada display strong overall performance and, equally important, show that a disadvantaged socioeconomic background does not necessarily result in poor performance at school’ (p.15). The important insight here is that we should be looking beyond copying the structures of these countries, and instead seek to emulate the processes that lead to improvement – in the case of Finland this includes a lack of inspections (which reduces the risk of performativity in the system), clear processes for sense-making in relation to changed policy, and leadership for reform/innovation. It can be argued that Finland’s social practices of curriculum-making shape its success as a system, as much as the ways in which its policies are framed.

Third, eyebrows will have been raised at the continued, and enhanced, role of Education Scotland in leading the development of the curriculum. The separation of the inspection and development functions of Education Scotland was widely predicted, and the fact that this has not happened will create some challenges for the system as it adapts to the new structures. I know, from my numerous conversations with teachers, that many will question putting the organisation responsible for the current state of affairs in CfE in charge of remedying its perceived ills. Of course views about the success (or otherwise) of CfE to date are contested, but regardless of where on stands on this question, it is clear that Education Scotland will face considerable challenges as it provides leadership within the new structures. A number of issues will need to be addressed, if the new structures are to be successful in the stated aim of developing improved practices across Scotland’s schools.

There is a need, in my view, to develop expertise – capacity – in curriculum development. We should be mindful of the observation by Lawrence Stenhouse (40 years ago) that there can be no curriculum development without teacher development – and that such insights apply to organisations leading curriculum development nationally/regionally as much as they apply to schools. We need to develop alternative methodologies for curriculum development. The evolution of CfE has been shaped to a large extent by the predominance of inspection/audit methodologies for curriculum development (in schools, in local authorities, and within Education Scotland). Such methodologies tend to focus on the evaluation of outputs, rather than considering the quality of inputs and processes; and I reiterate here that the success of Finland has been in a large part due to its focus on the latter. Linked to this is the issue of research literacy. A notable feature of organisations such as the SLO curriculum development agency in the Netherlands, or Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is that their personnel are research literate: they engage with educational research in a way that often seems absent in Scotland; and in many cases they undertake their own research, for example through doctoral study. Engagement with research is essential if we are to break beyond the bounds of what is habitual and familiar, and to explore alternative repertoires for educational practice. Finally, we need a culture, in our new governance structures, that is focused on future improvement, rather than one that is wedded to maintaining the sacred cows presented by past structures, methods and guidance. As my colleague Walter Humes has pointed out in TESS this week, changing structures is, on its own, insufficient; we also need to address the cultures that frame educational practice in Scotland.


A Research Strategy for Scottish Education: a cautious welcome for a long overdue initiative

Here is a reblog of my post on the new Scottish Council of Deans of Education blog –

On 2 May, we saw the long awaited publication of ‘A Research Strategy for Scottish Education’ (see This is a welcome step forward in enhancing the capacity of Scotland’s educational community – researchers, policymakers and practitioners – and to draw more effectively on research when formulating policy and developing practice. The publication of this document follows a long period where policy has been made and implemented with little apparent cognisance of the value of educational research, and following strong criticism by academics and learned societies such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh of the apparent lack of independent research in Scottish education. Most recent, was the recommendation from the OECD that the Government should ‘Strengthen evaluation and research, including independent knowledge creation.’  (

This neglect of research has not always been the case. For example, Brown and Munn (1985) identified five main features of the 1982 Development Programme for secondary third and fourth year curriculum and assessment, including a research programme to support and inform development. It is good, therefore, to see a re-emergence of higher profile for research in policymaking and practice, and it is to the credit of the Scottish Government that they have not only acted quickly to remedy this situation, but have also actively involved the academic community, through focus groups, in developing the new strategy.

Specifically, I welcome the following in the new strategy.

  • Recognition of the importance of research to the education system in Scotland.
  • Recognition that practitioners need to engage with relevant research findings, and that there need to be accessible channels and mechanisms to achieve this.
  • Recognition of the importance of practitioners as enquirers/researchers into their own professional practices and settings – and that this is a collaborative professional imperative.
  • Recognition of the importance of collaboration across education stakeholders/sectors, for example bringing together academics and teachers.
  • An affirmation of the importance of independent research – particularly to offer challenge to the system. This is a welcome counter-balance to an oft-heard assertion that inspections provide research evidence about educational contexts – as has been well-documented, inspections, while having a place in modern education systems, are heavily associated with performativity and, as such, their reliability and validity is open to question. Welcome the formation of a Scottish academic reference group
  • A recognition that data literacy – as a wider attempt to build practitioner research capacity and infrastructure – is crucial, as all data are subject to interpretation. The suggestion of funding for sabbaticals and master’s/PhD level study for practitioners seems sensible.
  • The commitment to develop capacity in the academic research community for quantitative/secondary data analysis. This is currently under-developed and much needed.
  • Provision for funding, including a reference to compensating for the likely reduction or withdrawal of EU funding. The strategy makes reference to ‘Provision for self-directed research by academia and other nongovernmental institutions. This implies funding, either by non-specific grants or endowments. This could be provided through existing mechanisms (e.g. Scottish Funding Council, Research Councils) or by challenge funds whereby organisations are encouraged to bid for grants within broad parameters.’ (p8).
  • An interesting reference to promoting research into non-standard educational approaches. More detail would be helpful here.

While there is much to welcome here, the document rings one of two alarm bells for me. These are largely issues relating to language and tone, but will need careful attention as the strategy is developed into workable procedures and practices. First, the strategy appears, in places, to conflate of data and research – and also appears to reduce data to statistical data. Research is more than data; generation of data is only part of the research process, which also requires attention to analysis and interpretation, as well as ethical considerations.

Second, the language of ‘best practice’ and ‘what works’ is a little worrying, given the high profile of critique of these notions in recent years. Such language frames approaches which potentially neglect the importance of context. I am perhaps being pedantic here, as to be fair, the strategy also uses more nuanced language. For example, it states, ‘translating international lessons into the Scottish context and developing new Scottish research evidence’ (p4) and:

What has been shown to work in the past may no longer be true now or in the future. In addition, we need evidence from Scotland to understand if lessons from other countries are genuinely applicable in the Scottish education system where organisational assumptions may differ greatly. (p9).

Such nuance, which implies a cognitive resources (Hammersley, 2002) approach to research, sits uneasily with the harder ‘what works’ discourses and their more scientistic assumptions about the generalisation of research, which have been associated in the recent past with the development of ‘must-do’ techniques, rather than professional judgement and interpretation of research resources (e.g. as was evident in many schools with the roll of out of Assessment is for Learning (AifL) in Scotland, and in particular the uncritical implementation of what have come to be known as AifL techniques).

Third, the strategy seems too closely aligned to current policy, which is taken as given. The Government would benefit from engaging more explicitly with current research discourses around impact, and especially the ways in which pathways to impact might be created. This in turn would allow the benefits of research for policy and practice to be more fully exploited, potentially leading to significant shifts in policy and practice. The ESRC toolkit on research impact is a useful resource in this matter (see The toolkit makes reference to different ways in which research might have impact:

  • Instrumental: influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour
  • Conceptual: contributing to the understanding of policy issues, reframing debates
  • Capacity building: through technical and personal skill development. The implication here is that research agendas might be driven by current policy imperatives, rather than informing them.

While many of the sentiments evident in the research strategy align with these impacts discourses, the overall message feels somewhat muted in the face of an apparent desire to see research unequivocally support current policy, rather than informing future policy development.

Despite these quibbles, I remain optimistic that the new Research Strategy is an important development with many positive implications for policy and practice in Scotland, and for the development of future productive and symbiotic relationships between researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders in Scottish education. I look forward to seeing it unfold.


Brown, S. & Munn, P. (eds.)(1985). The changing face of education 14 to 16 : curriculum and assessment. Windsor: NFER-Nelson.

Hammersley, M. (2002). Educational Research, Policymaking and Practice. London: PCP