The ‘refreshed’ CfE narrative: what is it for and what will it achieve?

Yesterday saw the release of the new ‘refreshed narrative on Scotland’s Curriculum’ (see This new initiative has been developed by a working group, comprising a wide range of stakeholders in Scottish education, and reporting to the Curriculum and Assessment Board, in response to the recommendation of the OECD (2015), that CfE needed a simplified narrative to reduce its complexity. While the narrative was well-received by practitioners during an extensive period of consultation in the lead up to its release, the reaction on my Twitter feed has been considerably more mixed – perhaps predictably. Comments included legitimate questions about what the narrative might achieve, along with responses that raised concerns that this does not represent genuine change, only a rearranging of the curricular deckchairs:

What are educators [sic] reflections? Do we still need #CfE2.0 or is the new narrative suffice [sic] to overtake issues identified in helping progress Scottish education?

What difference do we hope a “refreshed narrative” will make?

That is indeed the question. The implication is that, if we had only told the story better, we would have better outcomes. It really raises the concern that we are looking at spin more than substance.

Others were critical about the design, the lack of new content and the conceptualisation of key issues:

Have to say I’m not impressed by the website design and UI, content very familiar.

My favourite bit: ” ( BGE) this includes understanding the world, Scotland’s place in it and the environment, referred to as Learning for Sustainability”. I muse over the environment as if it was something peripheral and ‘other’ to the big world which has Scotland in it…

Some people were more upbeat, seeing the potential of the narrative to facilitate genuine discussions about curriculum change.

Useful tool to have real conversations in school about whether our curriculum fulfils the potential of this narrative.

In the light of this commentary, I think it is useful, as someone who was involved in discussions about the development of the narrative, to address questions about its purpose.

What is the narrative not about?

It is helpful to first establish what the narrative is not about. It is not a revision of CfE, and does not seek to make changes to the curriculum. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have been a critic of aspects of CfE (e.g. I continue to maintain that many aspects of the curriculum have been problematic, including the lack of attention to knowledge, its over-specification via the Es and Os and Benchmarks) and the distorting effects of accountability. There is certainly a case for a wholesale review of the curriculum, and this may come in time. Arguably, now is not the right time for this – the last thing Scotland’s over-burdened teaching workforce currently needs is another major round of change. So it is not surprising that the narrative offers nothing new in terms of content. It does, however, offer a very useful resource for making sense of the curriculum, and developing it constructively in schools.

What then is the purpose of the narrative?

One of my key criticisms of CfE to date has been the lack of a coherent framework for the curriculum, in contradistinction to countries like Ireland where the curriculum is set out in a single framework document. Instead, CfE has spanned multiple documents, with multifarious purposes – guidance, justification, and claims about what constitutes good learning. Experience has shown that this has created confusion for practitioners, who have struggled to make sense of the curriculum (see Priestley & Minty, 2013, Profuse guidance has not been accompanied by the sorts of meso-level support for curriculum making that might help practitioners make sense of this guidance in relation to their own practice.

For these reasons, the new narrative is a very welcome development in my view. It has two key purposes:

  1. It is a single point of entry – a one-stop shop – for relevant documentation to guide schools as they develop their curricula.
  2. More important in my view, it offers a process for engaging with CfE. The narrative is structured around why questions, what questions and how questions. It is thus not intended to be a new product, but is instead a process tool for engaging with the curriculum. It is intended to stimulate the sorts of debates that should be ongoing in schools about what education is for, and how it can be best structured. It fits nicely in that sense with the calls of one contributor on my Twitter feed for ‘more on teacher agency’.

My understanding is that the narrative will be launched at the Scottish Learning Festival, and that it will indeed be framed as part of a process of re-engagement with CfE – hopefully one that will be accompanied by resources (including time) to facilitate that re-engagement – rather than a new product to add to the plethora of guidance already out there. This could be very timely as schools currently develop their own curricular rationales, and as the agenda of school empowerment unfolds.



Inter-disciplinary curriculum: why is it so difficult to develop? (part two)

In my previous blog post, I set out some of the reasons why Inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) is advocated in modern curricula, and highlighted some of the problems that have stemmed from this. These include poorly conceptualised policy guidance, and patchy understanding of the nature of inter-disciplinarity, particularly its grounding in disciplinary knowledge. A result of these issues can be poor quality provision that is often difficult to see as inter-disciplinary; more often than not, what we see emerging is multi-disciplinarity with poor connections between discipline-based knowledge, or weakly conceptualised cross-curricular study that does not draw upon more than one discipline. I note here that while there is a general assumption that primaries do IDL, and secondaries do not, this is not necessarily the case. In this second post on this theme, I explore two issues – conceptual development and creating propitious conditions for IDL – both of which are essential if meaningful and coherent inter-disciplinary approaches to curriculum are to become possible. The insights here are equally applicable for primary and secondary education.

Conceptual understanding

At a general level, with wider implications for curriculum making as I have argued elsewhere, practitioners need to develop more expansive concepts of curriculum. This includes, inter alia, viewing curriculum as more than simply content, but instead as the social practices (including pedagogy and assessment) that constitute curriculum making. It involves practitioners taking a holistic view and seeing how their part of the curriculum fits into the whole, to ensure coherence and progression – both vertically across the age range, and horizontally across the breadth of the curriculum.

This, I believe, entails school-level curriculum planning that looks systematically at the content that forms the curriculum. It means shifting from the question of ‘what subjects should we teach?’, instead asking the question ‘what knowledge, skills and attributes are required to become an educated person, capable of thriving in a modern, complex democratic society?’.  As I have argued elsewhere in this blog, this is not a case of simply specifying content; it is instead part of a process of asking what education is for, which should rightly start with consideration of the purposes of education. In the case of Scotland these are set out to some extent in the big ideas – the attributes and capabilities – that form the Four Capacities.

This will probably involve a realisation that the current range of subjects contains (and conceals) considerable gaps in the required knowledge. It requires a shift from seeing subjects as not ends of education, somehow set in stone as was the case in the famous parable of the sabre-tooth curriculum1, but instead viewing them as a means of apportioning curricular content5 (with alternative means available). This means understanding that knowledge is not the same as disciplines, and disciplines are not the same as school subjects.

At an IDL specific level, we need to develop better understandings of concepts that relate to inter-disciplinarity. Part of this lies in the principles that underpin IDL, which might be seen as learning that draws knowledge (substantive/propositional and procedural2) from two or more disciplines in a connected way. Thus, disciplinary knowledge should always be the major foundation of school content, whether the approach is via subjects (based loosely or otherwise on disciplines) or integrated/inter-disciplinary provision.

According to Repko (20073), an inter-disciplinary curriculum should have four key elements:

  • addressing a complex problem or focus question that cannot be resolved by using a single disciplinary approach
  • drawing on insights generated by disciplines, inter-disciplines, or schools of thought, including non-disciplinary knowledge formations
  • integrating insights
  • producing an inter-disciplinary understanding of the problem or question.

It also lies in drawing upon the rich theoretical models that have formed the basis for inter-disciplinary curriculum in other parts of the world. Prominent amongst these is work by James Beane4 and Robin Fogarty5. Fogarty’s work is especially useful for schools seeking to develop a more integrated curriculum, offering a continuum of practice, including:

  • Fragmented – no joint planning or link making between subjects
  • Sequenced – arranging teaching so that related topics are taught concurrently within different subjects (e.g. allowing the study of the First World War in History to coincide with the study of war poetry in English).
  • Shared – joint planning of related disciplines (e.g. identifying commonalities between Science and Geography).
  • Webbed – the use of thematic approaches to bring content from different disciplines together (e.g. an Africa week when all curriculum areas focus on this single theme).
  • Threaded – a cross-curricular approach where big ideas (e.g. citizenship, thinking skills) are coherently planned across the curriculum.
  • Integrated – largely an interdisciplinary organisational approach, which breaks down traditional subject boundaries – either partially (e.g. hybrid subjects) or fully (e.g. the US middle school approach)

And of course, all of the above requires systematic sense making by teachers, not just an articulation of ideas in curricular guidance, which may or may not be read by practitioners.


Enhancing understanding of concepts associated with IDL, amongst those seeking to develop new approaches, is only part of the process, and may actually be a waste of time if such innovation is impeded by formidable barriers. Thus sense making to develop understanding should be accompanied by actions to address the conditions that promote and impede the development of inter-disciplinary curricula. A major issue lies in the ways in which secondary teachers are educated as subject specialists and primary teachers as generalists, as these assumptions constitute a major cultural barrier to IDL. If one accepts the argument, for instance, that IDL is an appropriate approach across the primary/secondary BGE transition phase from P5-S2, then it seems sensible to educate specialist teachers to teach across this phase. This is starting to happen in Scotland, via primary teaching degrees with a specialism, and PGDE/Master’s level programmes that prepare teachers to practice across the primary/secondary transition. More needs to be done here, for example, educating generalists with a subject or domain specialism (e.g. general science, modern languages or social studies) that spans the transition. Such a workforce might help address a lack of specialist teachers in the upper primary years, and an overly fragmented approach in the junior secondary years that currently relies on input from specialists educated in more narrow, discipline-based specialisms. This would of course involve some system-level change, including GTCS accreditation of new ITE routes. Other system level changes might include reconfiguration of qualifications systems to reward the development of IDL; current approaches serve to lock prevailing subject-based provision patterns in place.

Another issue relates to resourcing. Under CfE, there has been a general assumption that schools will make their own curriculum in ways that suit local needs. While I agree in principle with the notion of subsidiarity in curriculum making, this should not mean each school reinventing the wheel in isolation. The predominant approach for CfE has been to provide guidance and exemplification and ask schools to get on with it. That, in my view, is no substitute for national or regional support and resourcing for curriculum making, including curriculum leadership by expert teachers, systematic processes such as professional enquiry and the development of national resources that can be adapted in schools. I note here that the latter approach has a long pedigree in the UK, notably in the work of the Schools Council projects; for example, Schools History Project (including well-established GCSE programmes) is an enduring – and popular – testament to their success.

In summary, curriculum making does not happen in a vacuum. Meaningful IDL requires attention to both conceptual development and the conditions that support emerging practice. This is something that requires thoughtful and systematic leadership and resourcing from the centre as well as school-based curriculum making.


  2. Substantive for propositional knowledge refers to knowing that (not simply facts relating to a discipline, to which the content of schooling is often reduced, but also the ways of knowing and ordering that knowledge. Procedural knowledge refers to knowing how.
  3. While Repko was writing about Higher Education, his insights are highly applicable for schools.
  5. For more detail, see Fogarty, R. & Pete, B. (2009). How to Integrate the Curricula. Corwin.

Inter-disciplinary curriculum: why is it so difficult to develop? (part one)

Modern curricula advocate inter-disciplinary learning (IDL) as an alternative form of provision to more traditional subject-based delineation of the curriculum, and Scotland is no exception. This post is the first of two on the subject of IDL, or more specifically on curricular approaches – inter-disciplinary curricula – which might promote and foster IDL. This first piece will examine the current state of play in Scotland, highlighting the advantages claimed for IDL and identifying some of the practical approaches enacted in schools. The second post, which will follow in a few days, will explore what needs to be addressed if IDL is to become a practical reality in Scottish schools.

In Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), IDL is one of four specified contexts for learning. According to Education Scotland, in its 2012 CfE Briefing, ‘interdisciplinary learning, sometimes known as interdisciplinary studies, is a planned approach to learning which uses links across different subjects or disciplines to enhance learning’1. The Briefing goes on to offer two approaches to IDL:

  • ‘learning which is planned to develop awareness and understanding of the connections and differences across subjects or curriculum areas.’
  • ‘learning in different subjects or curriculum areas which is used to explore a theme or an issue, meet a challenge, solve a problem or complete a final project.’2

These definitions have been subject to critique for under-conceptualising what is in fact a hugely complex field of practice.

IDL is said to confer a range of benefits. Its many advocates claim that it allows students to make connections across different domains of knowledge more readily than is the case with more fragmented subject-based approaches to provision, examining complex social issues from multiple disciplinary perspectives. It is said to be more relevant to everyday life of young people, an essential part of education according to James Beane (19973), who stated that curriculum should be general, and helpful for young adolescents exploring self and social meanings. IDL is thus claimed to facilitate connections between everyday and disciplinary knowledge. For example, Dowden (2007) stated that its main purpose is to ‘resituate subject matter into relevant and meaningful contexts’4.

Moreover, IDL is firmly back on the political agenda in Scotland, highlighted by the January 2019 Royal Society of Edinburgh conference Interdisciplinary Learning for Excellence. Moreover, many schools are currently re-engaging systematically with the core purposes of CfE, as part of a national imperative to develop curricular rationales. At such a stage of development, it is important that alternative approaches to provision are considered, and better understanding of IDL is an essential component of this, particularly across the key primary-secondary transition phase from years P6-S2.

Yet despite strong advocacy of IDL in national policy, and in spite of widespread support for its principles, there has been little systematic adoption of such approaches in Scotland. Early experimentation with CfE saw some innovation, much of it fairly dubious, and often driven by a fallacious assumption that the new curriculum was replacing a focus on knowledge with an emphasis on skills acquisition, leading in many cases to IDL that ignored a key component – disciplinary knowledge. Some schools introduced the CfE afternoon (or morning), when stray learning outcomes in the new curriculum could be ‘ticked off’ in one fell swoop5. Other schools experimented with variants of the celebrated (possibly apocryphal) sausage themed week6, a ‘rich task’ activity where all subjects would involve study of content related to a particular theme. Many schools introduced hybrid subjects (e.g. social studies, science) combining traditional discipline based subjects such as history and geography, or biology and physics, in an attempt to defragment secondary curriculum in the Broad General Education (BGE – years S1-3) that may involve contact with 15 -20 teachers in a week.

These attempts to introduce IDL, and the national guidance that prompted them, have tended to be characterised by a lack of conceptual clarity about inter-disciplinary approaches, leading in many cases to activities that were not really inter-disciplinary, at best being cross-curricular. Public discourse around IDL uses many different terms interchangeably – for example, cross-curricular, integrated, thematic – which are conceptually distinctive but regularly conflated. Throughout this process, traditionally configured subjects have continued to dominate curricular thinking in most secondary schools. For example, rich tasks were seen as making connections between subjects, often spurious, while hybrid subjects continued to be seen as combining subjects, rather than as integration of knowledge. For instance, social studies has continued to be widely termed social subjects in Scotland, and integration is rare; more common are approaches where the constituent subjects are kept as separate modules, but taught by a single teacher7. It is not surprising that such innovation has tended to be greeted with scepticism by teachers.

So why have these approaches not worked well – and more important, what might be required to make them work? I suggest that action to promote meaningful inter-disciplinary curricula could be usefully developed by addressing the conditions which shape how schools approach the issue of IDL. These fall into two broad areas: conceptual understanding, and cultural/structural issues, including resourcing. The next post in this series will address these points.


    2. Ibid
    3. Also see this paper by Wall and Leckie –
    4. Cited in Wall & Leckie (2017) –
    6. In this example, all subjects related content to sausages. This probably has some relevance in Science (e.g. fat content), but is far more dubious in other subjects (history of sausages, sausages of the world, etc.).
    7. For an example of a Scottish school that has sought to genuinely integrate the social studies, see:

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.