TES podcast. Podagogy – Season 9, Episode 2: How to build a school curriculum

The link below is for an article in TES, summarising a conversation between myself and TES journalist Jon Severs on curriculum matters.


The page also contains a link to the podcast of the conversation, which lasts around 45 minutes. The discussion covers a range of issues, including:

  • How we might define a curriculum.
  • Tensions between autonomy and accountability.
  • Curriculum making capacity across the system.
  • The place of knowledge in the curriculum.

The podcast has elicited some lively discussion on social media, mainly constructive. Some responses appear to have been reactions to the title of the article (over which I had no control). It is worth listening to the podcast in full.

What do the PISA results tell us about Scottish education?

Co-authored with Dr Marina Shapira, University of Stirling

This week has seen the triennial publication of the results of the 2018 PISA survey, including the much awaiting country rankings in reading, mathematics and science. In Scotland, these results have been much anticipated, following the ‘PISA shock’ of 2015.

The 2018 results have shown a modest improvement in the reading score – from 493 in 2015 to 504, effectively bringing the country’s performance back to the levels recorded in 2006, 2009 and 2012 (but below earlier scores in 2000 and 2003). Scores in mathematics and science have remained stagnant since 2005, with marginal declines in performance (from 491-489 in maths and from 497 to 490 in science).

Inevitably, these results have been used to score political points in the immediate run-up to the election. Deputy First Minister and Education Cabinet Secretary John Swinney tweeted:

PISA has its limitations but Scotland’s performance in reading has risen sharply. Just 5 countries are now significantly higher than Scotland. The Scottish Attainment Programme started with an emphasis on literacy – the foundation of so much other learning. That is bearing fruit. (3 December 2019)

The reaction to the results has been more negative in the media. Holyrood Magazine stated that ‘Scotland’s score for reading improved in the latest PISA report, returning to a level similar to 2012 after a drop in 2015, but for maths and science there has been a decline in scores with each PISA survey since 2003 for maths and 2006 for science’. According to the Sun:

Pupils are now performing slightly worse than they did before she [Nicola Sturgeon] started improving our school system. And the figures are clear that, despite the up-tick in reading, performance in maths and science has continued to fall.

The Times has been similarly critical, stating that ‘performance levels in science and maths slipped to a record low in the Pisa test’.

So who is right? What do the PISA results tell us about Scotland? Is there really evidence of decline in standards, and can this be attributed to Curriculum for Excellence and the SNP, as many are claiming?

Prior to discussing the results it is important to note that the PISA study is based on a sample[1] and as such the measures it produces have sampling errors and therefore cannot be automatically generalised towards the entire population of 15 year old students in Scotland. Therefore, prior to describing a change in a PISA score in 2018 (compared to the previous years) as an ‘increase’ or a ‘decrease’, it should be first checked whether the change is statistically significant. ‘Statistical significance’ means that measures estimated from a sample can be generalised for the entire research population. We can never know a true population parameter unless the measurement is based on entire population. Yet, we can estimate the risk of making a mistake if we use the sample estimate. Usually 5% is deemed to be an acceptable level of risk. This means that we can be 95% confident that the estimates are true for the population.

Thus, the alleged ‘decrease’ in Maths and Sciences attainment in Scotland compared with 2015 is not statistically significant. In other words, the difference in numbers falls within the margin of error in this sort of survey, and the best that can be said is that there is no change between 2015 and 2018 in these subjects. Moreover, in international comparative terms, these performances fall pretty much in the middle ground in the league table, suggesting an average performance by Scotland. Reading scores have increased from 2015 to 2018, but the difference is small, and also may be a one off fluctuation. To quote the recent UCL/IoE blog on the UK PISA results:

But hold your horses before getting too excited. One good set of results is NOT a trend! And a swing of this size in PISA can simply be a result of changes in methodology.

Thus, the media hype about Scotland’s decline in maths and science is not especially warranted, as the evidence is actually pretty underwhelming. Conversely, claims about boosts in reading are slightly more credible[2]. While the scores have largely remained stable in recent years, there are some interesting nuances in the data. First, the claim that that only 5 countries (Canada, Estonia, Finland, Ireland and Korea) have better score than Scotland in reading is technically true, given the methodological caveats explained above. And yet Scotland is in a company of another 12 countries which have their reading scores in the same confidence interval (the interval where the true population parameter lies). Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that only three countries have reading scores for boys higher than Scotland (10 countries have reading score for boys within the same confidence interval). However, Scotland is doing less well when reading proficiency levels are considered; quite a few counties with average reading scores lower than in Scotland have a higher proportion of students achieving reading proficiency level 5 or 6 (e.g. England. Slovenia, United States, Australia, Norway, Poland. Israel). Another interesting fact is that the socio-economic inequality gradient (the amount of variation in the reading test score explained by the family socio-economic background) in Scotland is lower than the OECD average, but is similar to that in England.

Moreover, there are some interesting trends over time which merit further comment. The first of these concerns the scores over time in reading. We can note that there was a sharp drop in the reading score during the 2000-2006 period and then stable results between 2006 and 2012, a drop in 2015 and then the score bounced back to the level of 2012. If we accept the 2015 result as a fluctuation (which may be a methodological issue), we can safely say that since 2006 there has been little change. Similarly in Maths, we can again see a sharp drop between 2003 and 2006 (well before the introduction of CfE) and similar scores (differences are not statistically significant) since 2006. The big decline in scores took place before the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (and indeed before the period of SNP government), and therefore it is inaccurate to suggest (as many media outlets seem to be doing) that the decline is due to the current curriculum reforms.

Science is the only area where the drop in attainment might be attributed to CfE; here we see stable results between 2006 and 2012, then a sharp drop between 2012 and 2015, and then a slight (but not statistically significant) decline in 2018. It is not clear why this might be the case. We can of course speculate; changes to the specification of content, increased formulaic teaching to the test, lack of accessibility to triple science for the senior phase, and a decline in practical work are possible suspects. However, these are empirical questions, and we simply lack the detailed knowledge of the nature and extent of these trends and their effects. Equally, the phenomena of declining scores in reading and maths between 2000 and 2006 need to be looked into, to increase our understanding of what might have affected attainment. As ever, these issues clearly flag the need for more research.

Another very interesting finding in the data relates to immigrant children. Educational attainment of immigrant children is often considered as an indicator of the success of immigrant integration. Here that news for Scotland is very positive. In reading, second generation immigrant students in Scotland performed higher than or similar to all OECD countries, with only Singapore of the non-OECD countries having a higher performance than Scotland (521). Performance among first generation immigrant students in Scotland was also higher than or similar to all OECD countries (509). The OECD average for second generation immigrant students was 465 and for first generation immigrant students was 440.

In maths, second generation immigrant students in Scotland (512) performed higher than or similar to all OECD countries, with only Singapore and Macao (China) of the non-OECD countries having a higher performance than Scotland. Performance among first generation immigrant students in Scotland (500) was also higher than or similar to all OECD countries in maths. In science, in 2018, second generation immigrant students in Scotland (502) performed higher than or similar to all OECD countries, with only Singapore and Macao (China) of the non-OECD countries having a higher performance than Scotland. Performance among first generation immigrant students in Scotland (509) was also higher than or similar to all OECD countries in science. It is not unusual for immigrant children to perform better than a country’s majority population children in STEM subjects. Yet, the fact that they are able to perform so well in Scotland might offer some insights into why native Scottish children are not doing equally well. One of the reasons could be a lack of interest and motivation, indicating an important area for the policy development.

For the Scottish Government’s analysis of PISA results, see https://www.gov.scot/publications/programme-international-student-assessment-pisa-2018-highlights-scotlands-results/.

[1] In Scotland the study was carried out in 107 randomly selected public funded and independent schools, with about 40 students being randomly selected from each school. Then schools exclude certain students from the sample, if they have additional support needs or language issues. This means that comparison of PISA results with the Government educational performance statistics should be done only with extreme caution, since the latter is produced for ALL students in PUBLICALLY funded schools in Scotland.

[2] Although we note that evidence that this is directly linked to CfE or other interventions such as the Attainment Challenge is limited at best.

Curriculum for Excellence and attainment in National Qualifications

Curriculum for Excellence and attainment in National Qualifications

Marina Shapira, Camilla Barnett, Tracey Peace-Hughes, Mark Priestley and Michelle Ritchie

[Please note – the web version of this post does not include the charts. To see these, download the PDF] Shapira et al

Over the past week, we have witnessed a reigniting of the rancorous debate about qualifications in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. This debate has surfaced periodically since 2015, and has focused on allegedly falling attainment and a narrowing of curriculum choice in the Senior Phase of secondary schooling (e.g. see TES, 2018). The annual publication of qualifications data relating to National Qualifications has tended to stoke the debate, but another factor has been the periodic release of unpublished research by University of Dundee Honorary Professor Jim Scott.

Extensive media coverage has at times assumed the proportions of a moral panic, talking in polemical terms of the ‘crisis’ that is ‘putting the education of a generation of pupils at risk’, and which has spread like ‘a virus’ (The Herald, 2019. Also see: Times Educational Supplement, 2018; The Scotsman, 2019). Most recently further controversy has been sparked by the coverage of a claim in Scott’s latest report that the percentage of those who gain national qualifications in Scotland is going sharply down since the introduction of the new curriculum. Initial coverage in the Telegraph was picked up and broadly disseminated across the media, including The Times, with eye catching headlines ‘Ministers admit curriculum failure as grade hits disadvantaged’ and ‘Failed curriculum’. This has subsequently provided fuel for attacks on government education policy by opposition politicians.

This debate has been of great interest to us, given the focus of our recent publications (Shapira & Priestley, 2018, 2019). We acknowledge the role of independent research in offering a systematic critique of policy and practice in education, and we recognise Scott’s important role in drawing attention to the issue of curriculum narrowing. We also note that we too have been critical of many aspects of CfE – articulation of policy, implementation and particularly the trend towards curriculum narrowing in the senior phase. Nevertheless, we also are cognisant of the dangers of using research to support political agendas, as appears to be the case in the current furore about qualifications. For that reason, it is important to have rigorous independent research to support both policy formation and critique of that policy. One of the arguments that we have been making in our recent work is that there is simply not enough evidence on the impacts of the Curriculum for Excellence.

Scott’s reports have been described, quite rightly, as independent. We do, however, have some concerns about their methodological rigour, and this in turn calls into question the findings and conclusions that are drawn from them. For example, in our own analysis of the attainment data (on the level of secondary schools in Scotland for years 2011-2017) we have not seen evidence that the attainment at National 5 level and Higher level has deteriorated under the new curriculum, as is claimed by Scott. On the contrary, the attainment levels have risen, both in terms of the overall percentage passes (out of total number of entries into qualifications, grades A-C), as well as in terms of percentages of pupils who attained 5 A-C grades at National 5 and Higher levels.

So what is going on? How is it possible to have two quite conflicting interpretations from the same data? We suggest that the issue lies in a lack of robust methodology in the underpinning research; this in turn then produces results – and subsequent claims – that are at best dubious, and which at worst misrepresent the data. We cannot address the full range of claims made in the report, but we offer two examples to illustrate claims which are problematic.

Falling attainment?

Let us first address one of the claims made in the media based on the report.  It says

Looking at national, local authority and individual school data, he found attainment in Scottish national qualification levels three to five in S4 pupils has dropped by at least 32.9% for each level since CfE was introduced in 2013.

How could this profound conclusion be reached based on the figures presented in Scott’s report? The report uses the figures obtained from the Scottish Qualifications Authority official statistics. These show 335,397 passes in 2018-2019, compared to 503,221 passes in 2012-2013.  Simple maths thus suggests that the total number of passes in 2018-19 stand at 66.6% of the total number of passes in 2012-2013.  It does technically mean that there was a 33.3% reduction in passes in year 2018-2019 compared to year 2012-2013. But could we conclude based on that that attainment on National 3-5 levels dropped by 33.3%? The answer is no, and it is necessary to explain why.

When we look at the first two tables reproduced from Scott’s reports, it is not clear what Scott is presenting as ‘Attainment’. The reader is not signposted and without going back to the original SQA data we are unsure whether the figures presented in the column for each year refers to the number of pupils who received a pass at A-C level or whether he is referring to the total number of passes (including passes at D level).  When we do go to the original, publicly available SQA data we find the brief definitions for both ‘Attainment’ and ‘Entries’

  • ‘Attainment’ refers to entries with successful results.
  • ‘Entries’ are the entries for a year (e.g. 1/8/17 – 31/7/18), that is the centre estimates that the learner will complete the award within that time period.

In other words, ‘attainment’ is counted as all exam/coursework passes, across all year groups. Young people who sit multiple qualifications, and pass, are counted multiple times. When we look at the tables available from the SQA, for example, we also see that ‘attainment’ at National 5 level is considered to be a pass at grades A-C. Thus attainment is conceptualised as the total number of qualifications gained in a year across all subjects.

There is a major caveat here. Claiming that the total number of qualifications achieved is not the same as saying that grades have fallen. To claim the former as a fall in attainment is misleading. The reason for this is that a drop in the total number of qualifications achieved is not necessarily evidence of a decline in standards; it may simply be that fewer qualifications are being taken, and there are various factors that need to be considered when analysing this. To simply compare raw numbers from year to year will not account for these.

Over time comparisons are important because they allow us to understand these factors. There are different methodologies for doing such comparisons.  One methodology would be to include a baseline year (or period) and then compare the rest of the data to that baseline year. This is what Scott apparently does in his report. Yet, a selection of the baseline year should be justified and one should make sure that such comparison is meaningful, comparing ‘like with like’, and avoiding spurious comparisons. A good example of unsuitable choice of baseline year would be the one from the former Soviet Union, where the baseline year 1913 was used routinely by the authorities to make comparisons that proved the advances of a planned socialist economy (e.g. we produce more washing machines in 1980 than we produced in 1913). Taking this logic, there is a need to reflect on both demographic issues (e.g. declining school rolls) as well as changes in school practices after the introduction of the new curriculum, as these may explain the total number of passes at National levels 3-5 after the introduction of the CfE.

Prior to the introduction of new national qualifications under the CfE there was a wide-spread practice of double counting of passes at SCQF levels 4 and 5. For example, schools often entered pupils for qualifications simultaneously at both Standard Grade Credit and Standard Grade General to minimise the number of fails and number of pupils who do not receive any qualifications.  The widespread practice of fall-back from Higher (level 6) to Intermediate 2 (level 5) in school year S5 meant that thousands of students were routinely entered for level 5 qualifications when they already had one (Standard Grade Credit) in the same subject from the previous year. Enrolment patterns have thus changed since the introduction of new single track qualifications under CfE, which makes it problematic to directly compare pre-and post-CfE qualification numbers.

Furthermore, there was a continuous reduction in the size of the 12-18 years old cohort  (and especially in the size of the 15-16 year cohort, see charts 1 and 2) therefore a part of reduction in the number of passes is due to the  demographic changes. Taking into account these (and other) changes, the comparison between the total number of passes before and after the introduction of the CfE is essentially meaningless.

Another significant reason for the reduction in the number of qualifications achieved is the narrowing of the secondary curriculum documented in our recent research papers (Shapira & Priestley, 2018, 2019). Whereas previously 8 subjects was the norm for the first tier of qualifications, many schools now offer as few as 5 or 6 subjects at SCQF levels 4/5. The main reduction in the number of subject entries and the number of subject choices took place during from 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 during the transition period from the former to new qualifications. Therefore using the year 2012-2013 as a base line year is simply wrong, because this doesn’t take into account this subject choice reduction (for more detailed discussion of the  reasons behind the curriculum narrowing see our paper: Shapira & Priestley 2019).

Therefore, to meaningfully compare the number of passes over time, we must do so as a proportion of the total number of entrants or awards for each year.  Using the data we can calculate the proportion of students attaining at each level over time, but only if we calculate the proportion at each level using that specific year’s total as a base.  Then we can compare the trends in the size of the proportion of those who achieve qualifications at a certain level. When we do so one can see (Chart 3) that after the introduction of CfE there was a reduction in the proportion of passes on National 3 and National 4 levels but a 15% increase in the proportion of passes  (from 53% in 2011-2012 to 67% in 2018-2019) at National 5 level qualifications (Chart 3). This strongly suggests at attainment is actually rising (in that students in S4 are taking qualifications at a higher level than previously).

Leaving school without qualifications

Let us now address another headline derived from the report – that there is 50% increase in number of people who leave school without qualifications. Looking the figures presented in the report, one can see that technically this is true. The proportion of young people leaving school without qualifications was 2.8% in 2007-8, gradually went down to 1.5%  in 2011-2012 and then gradually increased to 2.2% (which is indeed 50% increase compared with 2011-2012). Of course the evidence that 2.2% of young people left  school without qualifications should be of a great concern, as this is about life chances of 995 young people (the number of young people left school without qualifications in 2012-13 was 1005, reflecting the larger size of the school leaver cohort in that year). Scott’s report clearly identifies an issue of concern that requires action.

Chart 4: Percentage of initial leavers by stage of leaving, 2009/10 to 2017/18

However, to present this as evidence of the failure of CfE is misleading. These figures need to be examined not in isolation, but in relation to other statistics about school leavers. Thus, the Scottish Government published data shows that over the period of the CfE introduction there was also a decrease in the proportion of young people leaving school in S4 (from 12.6% in 2013/14 to 11.3% in 2017/18) and an increase in the proportion of young people leaving school in S5 (from 24.5% in 2013/14 to 25.9% in 2017/18) (see Chart 4). There was also an increase in proportion of young people leaving schools with at least SCQF level 5 or better in literacy (from 63% in 2012-13 to 80% in 2018-19) and numeracy (from 56.6% in 2012-2013 to 70% in 2018-19; Charts 5 and 6)[1]. Finally, a school leaver’s destination is a very important outcome by which curriculum impacts may be accessed. In Chart 7 we present trends in initial (3 months after leaving school) destinations of young people. The trends show that over the period there was an increase of the percentage of young people who made transitions to Higher Education (an increase from about 36% to 41% over the entire period, and an increase from about 38% to 41% after the introduction of CfE), as well as increase in employment (from 18.5% to 22.7% over the entire period). At the same time, the proportion of school leavers who were unemployed and looking for work decreased.

Finally, official Scottish Government data (Chart 7) show that that at levels 4, 5 and 6 attainment gaps between the  most advantaged and most disadvantaged SIMD quintiles getting smaller (see yellow, dark blue and grey lines on the chart).


Overall, we believe that studying the impact the curriculum reform is complex. It needs to consider a broad range of indicators that assess the outcomes of young people. These outcomes include a breadth of education, the range and configuration of subjects they study, the number of A-C passes at National 5 and Higher level qualifications, the overall level and range of qualifications achieved, the transitions made and destination reached after leaving school, and outcomes in the later life (for example occupational outcomes). Not all these outcomes can be studied now, however we should focus our attention on those indicators that are already available and analyse them using rigorous methods to produce an evidence which is comprehensive and reliable. At the same time we need to fill gaps in the data which is currently missing but which could potentially offer insights about the way the curriculum is made in schools, the role of different actors – local authorities, teachers, parents and learners in these processes, and their impacts on young people. Our new two year research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will go some way towards addressing these gaps in Scotland. This comprehensive study will combine an analysis of available administrative data sources at the nuanced level of individual pupils and schools in Scotland with new data collection though social surveys, interviews and focus groups in secondary schools in Scotland. The goal is to understand curriculum making processes, curriculum provision and outcomes in terms of subject choice, attainment and destinations of young people in final phase of secondary education.


Shapira, M. & Priestley, M. (2018). Narrowing the Curriculum? Contemporary trends in provision and attainment in the Scottish Curriculum. Scottish Educational Review, 50[1], 75-107.

Shapira, M. & Priestley, M. (2019). Do schools matter? An exploration of the determinants of   lower secondary school subject choices under the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. Review of Education.

[1] Attainment in literacy and numeracy refers to all students who achieved a pass in relevant units (not full qualifications) which contribute towards attainment in literacy and numeracy at that particular level.


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 https://scotlandscurriculum.scot/). 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. https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/the-endless-quest-for-the-holy-grail-of-educational-specification-scotlands-new-assessment-benchmarks/). 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, http://www.scotedreview.org.uk/media/microsites/scottish-educational-review/documents/355.pdf). 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.


  1. https://users.ugent.be/~mvalcke/OWK_1415/toetsing/thesabertoothcurriculumshor.pdf
  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. https://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=googlescholar&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA165912657&sid=googleScholar&asid=4eaedccb. While Repko was writing about Higher Education, his insights are highly applicable for schools.
  4. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XxkBDAAAQBAJ
  5. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/fc84/06745befdf07ad521450d7434df379c72c48.pdf. 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.


    1. https://education.gov.scot/Documents/cfe-briefing-4.pdf
    2. Ibid
    3. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XxkBDAAAQBAJ. Also see this paper by Wall and Leckie – https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1151668.pdf
    4. Cited in Wall & Leckie (2017) – https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1151668.pdf
    5. http://hdl.handle.net/1893/7075
    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:  http://hdl.handle.net/1893/15812

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 http://www.slo.nl/downloads/2009/curriculum-in-development.pdf/

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: http://www.itv.com/news/2018-09-20/fm-challenged-on-education-after-government-defeat-on-p1-testing/).

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 – http://www.parliament.scot/S5_Education/Meeting%20Papers/20180919ES_Meeting_Papers.pdf

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

Here is the text of my post on the Welsh curriculum, originally posted at https://curriculumforwales.gov.wales/

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 (https://theconversation.com/in-britains-battle-over-school-curriculum-celtic-nations-have-got-it-right-90277) – 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.