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relating to National Qualifications has tended to stoke the debate, but another factor has been the periodic release of unpublished research by University of Dundee Honorary Professor Jim Scott.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.


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New breed of teachers; old breed of reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CfE and PISA: ‘holding our nerve’

The publication this week of the triennial PISA results has produced the usual phenomenon of the PISA shock in various countries. In the UK, England has maintained its position relative to other countries, and this is a source of disappointment to a government that staked its reputation on improving its performance. In Wales, indifferent performance and a disappointing set of results in science are a source for concern, but the political message is, in the words of one headteacher, to ‘hold our nerve’ and see through the current curricular reforms. In Scotland, a dip in performance relative to England is more difficult to stomach, and has raised inevitable questions about whether the decline is due to Curriculum for Excellence. According to Professor Lindsay Paterson, a long-time critic of CfE, the decline in Scotland’s relative and absolute performance on PISA is ‘shocking’ (see Professor Paterson states that the pupils tested in the current PISA round have been entirely educated under CfE, suggesting that CfE is the problem.

I have some sympathy with some of his well-known criticisms of CfE. I have consistently been on record as supporting the broad general direction represented by the curriculum – local flexibility, student-centred approaches and teacher autonomy – but would agree with him in his critique of the lack of attention to knowledge within CfE. To my mind, a progressive curriculum should not preclude, as stated by John Dewey, the learning of ‘the accumulated wisdom of the ages’; it should not mean that teachers should neglect issues of knowledge. I too regularly hear educators telling me that ‘we do not need to teach knowledge anymore because pupils can google what they need to know’, and that ‘education is all about skills now’. In my view, a curriculum should be knowledge-rich, and this entails teachers posing the right questions in their curriculum design about what knowledge is of most worth.

Nevertheless, I would disagree with the notion that CfE is to blame for the decline in PISA scores experienced in Scotland. This seems to be a simplistic explanation, which ignores the complexity of educational reform and of the multi-layered terrain of education in Scotland. Instead I would point to what the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher stated on BBC news on 6 December 2016 – that Scotland needs to move from an intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum. While I have warned for some years that the problem with CfE is not CfE per se, despite its weaknesses in the area of knowledge (see and tensions within its structure (see, I would argue that the original vision for the curriculum was sound, with its basis in a set of clear purposes – attributes and capabilities – to be developed by education. Indeed, CfE sought to provide in Scotland exactly the sort of rich educational experience that is evident in highly performing education systems such as Singapore and Finland, and is typical in many ways of curriculum policy in many such countries.

Instead, the problems lies in its enactment – its translation from policy to practice, as clearly indicated by the OECD in its 2015 review of CfE. There are various issues here, all of which add to a highly complex enactment of policy to practice. They include:

  • The specification of curricular content as detailed learning outcomes, which have encouraged audit approaches and strategic compliance with CfE, rather than full engagement with its principles. The new benchmarks offer more of the same, and will require a great deal of care in their implementation if we are to avoid a continuation of such approaches.
  • A lack of clarity in CfE guidance about processes for curriculum development (see and the sheer volume of CfE documentation; the latter issue has contributed to a lack of clarity amongst schools and teachers, especially as the key messages have often been obscured, and in some cases changed over time. Again, the OECD identified this issue in their call for a simplified narrative.
  • The persistence of accountability mechanisms that have acted counter to the spirit of CfE, often encouraging performativity in schools (see and its accompanying bureaucracy.
  • A teaching workforce that, while highly dedicated and technically skilled,  has often struggled to make sense of a new and different curriculum, in the absence of sustained programmes to engage them with its principles and develop theories of knowledge that are consonant with this approach. I continue to meet teachers who admit to being baffled by CfE. A further, and related issue is cultural; implicit teacher philosophies about education do not always sit easily with CfE, and the lack of adequate spaces for sense-making does not allow this issue to be readily addressed.
  • A paucity of craft knowledge around curriculum development across the system – what Michael Apple has described as a ‘lost art’.

The net result has been an incomplete (at best) enactment of CfE, and a tendency to address new curricular problems through existing practices and assumptions. This was evident in our research in 2011 and 2012 (e.g., and I have seen little evidence since, in my extensive work with teachers, that the situation has improved. Thus the issue with declining scores in PISA is, in my opinion, likely to be due to a failure to enact CfE adequately, rather than being a problem with CfE as a curricular approach.

So how do we address this? A good starting point is the OECD review, which provides legitimation for a revision of CfE in its call to be bold. In all of this we need to remember that the curriculum should not be set in stone as a sabre tooth curriculum (see; instead it should be subject to regular review, and such a process should not be framed as a climb-down or u-turn by policy makers, but simply a part of the normal process of updating the curriculum to adapt to changing societal needs. This means a rationalisation of existing documentation, in my view, to provide the simplified narrative called for by the OECD. It requires the establishment of a strengthened middle – a mid-system leadership stratum that provides support and facilitation for curriculum development, using tried and tested methods of teacher/curriculum development such as collaborative professional enquiry (see Above all, we should ‘hold our nerve’ with CfE, and enact it fully in the spirit of its original aspirations (avoiding the political temptation to ape the testing regimes so familiar in England). The CfE model is much admired around the world – but we need to make it a reality in our schools.