‘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.

Some commentary on History, progression and the Social Studies benchmarks

The following is a guest post from Dr Joe Smith, University of Stirling, on the assessment of History using the new benchmarks.

Curriculum for Excellence is presently being equipped with ‘benchmarks’ to clarify what a child at each ‘level’ might be expected to know and do.  In terms of history, this means that Education Scotland have addressed the messy question of progression in historical understanding.  This blog posts explores some of the problems with the proposals. (NB. Some of the arguments here are similar to those I raised in The Curriculum Journal 2016)


There exist several models for progression in history education, but all are based on the uncontroversial premise that ‘getting better’ means something other than ‘knowing more’.  There is, after all, a literally infinite amount that one might know about the past and so to say that, ‘I know more history than you’ is to say that ‘I know a tiny bit more about a tiny sliver of the past than you do’.  There is not a totality of historical knowledge against which our knowledge can be cross-checked and this awkward fact means that we can’t assess children based on how much they know, because we, all of us, know very little.

Instead, progression in history refers not to a more complete understanding of the past, but a more sophisticated one.  For example, Shemilt (1983) produced one of the first workable models about how progression in history might be conceived. He argued that children moved through levels of understanding through which the complexity of the past was slowly realised:

  • Level One – There is a story of the past which can be learned. Things happened because they happened.
  • Level Two – There is a single simple story of the past which is easy to learn. Evidence which doesn’t fit this story is wrong. The past could never have been other than how it is.
  • Level Three – There is an appreciation that accounts of the past necessarily differ.
    Level Four – There is a recognition that there is no single story about the past and the nature of the narrative depends on the questions one asks.

Shemilt’s is by no means a perfect model, but it demonstrates how measuring progression requires an assessment of how children are thinking about the past. If teachers must measure children, then they must assess the sophistication of the child’s thinking as revealed through their written and spoken responses. They cannot and must not, simply put a tick or cross against what the child knows (or is perceived not to know).

The approach to progression seen in the new CfE benchmarks contains none of this sophistication.  The benchmarks are problematic in at least four ways.

  • They are, in many cases, so vague that they are devoid of meaning
  • They assess ‘knowledge’ that is pointless
  • They are startlingly undemanding
  • They ask children to behave in a way which is fundamentally unhistorical

In the following paragraphs I deal with each issue in turn, drawing upon examples from the benchmarks.

Vague and Meaningless

The second level benchmark says that a child,

‘Researches a historical event using both primary and secondary sources of evidence.’

This is nothing more or less than a description of the discipline of history. It is possible to achieve this ‘benchmark’ at every level from lower primary to university dissertation. What, specifically, does a child have to do to say that they have met this?  How independent do they have to be? What are they meant to produce at the end of this? How even can you assess the process of researching something? Historians research so that they can produce an account of the past – we assess the quality of an account informed by research, not the act of research itself.

Pointless Knowledge

Recognises the difference between primary and secondary sources of evidence.

The concept of ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ is not inherent in a source: whether a piece of evidence can properly be called ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ depends entirely of the questions that are being asked of it.  A school textbook is a primary source is a secondary source about the events is describes, but a primary source to an historian of education. In any case, it’s not even a useful distinction to be able to make. Being able to label ‘X’ as a primary source is of no practical to children. In fact, it encourages formulaic thinking along the lines of ‘X is a good source because it is primary’ which is actively unhelpful to the child’s development of historical understanding.


At the second level, a child of eleven and a half…

Describes and discusses at least three similarities and differences between their own life and life in a past society.

I am pretty certain that my five year old child could meet this benchmark, yet this is the benchmark for a child on the verge of secondary school.  Apart from anything else, this kind of ‘spot the difference’ activity is not particularly historical because it is devoid of explanation: i.e. ‘I put clothes in the washing machine, they use a mangle’ is not really historical thinking.  Whereas,

‘Before the electrification of homes people needed to do their washing on a mangle. This took a lot of time.   Since electrification, we have washing machines which means that we spend less time washing clothes’

contains elements of causation and change.


Contributes two or more points to the discussion (in any form) as to why people and events from the past were important.

The qualities of important or unimportant (or more properly significance) are not inherent in a particular historical topic, but imputed by the person talking about the topic. The phrasing of this benchmark presupposes that Event or Person X was ‘important’ and expects children to say why that is the case.  The idea that we get to decide for children which actors in the past were and were not significant, is deeply troubling. Instead, the expectation should be that children can disagree about why an event is significant (or even whether it was significant at all) rather than assuming it is important and asking them to tell us why. A better benchmark would be something like ‘Can choose a historical event and say why they think it should be remembered’.

So where has the problem come from?

The fundamental unsuitability of these benchmarks stems from the fact that they are based on the Experiences and Outcomes document which was, itself, wholly unfit for purpose.  I have written about their shortcomings at length (Smith, 2016), but the basic problem is that they were never intended to be used as the basis of a progression model. The Es and Os address two incompatible functions – prescribing content and defining procedural knowledge.  When these two functions are translated into ‘benchmarks’, curious things start to happen. For example, the ‘E and O’ SOC 2-04a reads, ‘I can compare and contrast a society in the past with my own and contribute to a discussion of the similarities and differences’.  This is a worthwhile activity for children to undertake – it asks children to appreciate change and continuity over historical time. However, when it is uncritically turned into a ‘benchmark’, a worthwhile activity loses its value; as eleven year olds are asked to ‘Describe and discuss at least three similarities and differences between their own life and life in a past society.’

Another example is SOC 2-06a which reads, ‘I can discuss why people and events from a particular time in the past were important.’ In this phrasing, discussion is the thing that the child does – the child is writing or talking discursively. However, in the benchmarks the active verb ‘to discuss’ morphs into the passive noun ‘a discussion’ to which the child now contributes.  In the process, any semblance of historical thinking is lost.

So what is to be done?

The great pity here is that there already exists a document which might be used as the basis for more effective benchmarking – the 2015 Significant Aspects of Learning (SALs) document.  Up until very recently, advice from Education Scotland was for teachers to defer to the SALs in planning the learning of their classes, not to the Es and Os.  The 2015 SALs are predicated on an assumption that historical understanding is conceptual understanding; it is not a matter of knowing more.

  • understanding the place, history, heritage and culture of Scotland and appreciating local and national heritage within the world
  • developing an understanding of the world by learning about how people live today and in the past
  • becoming aware of change, cause and effect, sequence and chronology
  • locating, exploring and linking periods, people, events and features in time and place

By using the SALs it is much easier to conceive progression. For example, we have a well-established model for assessing progression in children’s understanding of causation which derives ultimately from Shemilt.

  1. It was always going to happen, hence we cannot explain causation
  2. It was caused by one thing
  3. It was caused by many things
  4. It was caused by many things and we can categorise and prioritise these things
  5. It was caused by many factors which were interlinked and interdependent.

Everyone involved in education in Scotland wants its system to remain among the best in the world, but this means having a clear idea of what ‘the best’ looks like.  Progression models are always simplifications of cognitive development, but they are underpinned by a disciplinary understanding of what ‘more sophisticated thinking looks like’. If we reduce progression to a series of performative tasks, then teachers will inevitable teach to these tasks.  Instead we should be empowering teachers by demonstrating our aspirations for our children and trusting teacher’s professionalism to deliver on it.

The endless quest for the Holy Grail of educational specification: Scotland’s new assessment benchmarks

Teachers in Scotland are presently witnessing the phased publication of a series of draft assessment benchmarks. These are linked to the call in last year’s OECD review of Scottish education to simplify the narrative of the curriculum in response to OECD recommendations. The first benchmarks, for literacy and numeracy, were published in August 2016 (https://tinyurl.com/zjtogmb). They have subsequently been followed by draft benchmarks in a range of subjects such as Science (see https://tinyurl.com/zaj4s93), Expressive Arts and Social Studies, with more to follow for each curriculum area by the end of the year. Each set of benchmarks comprises around 50 pages of text, with groups of Experiences and Outcomes (Es & Os) listed alongside sets of benchmarks related to the applicable outcomes. If early drafts are any indication, we can expect to see around 4000 benchmarks covering the whole curriculum. The example below, from the draft Third Level Social Studies benchmarks, provides a flavour of this new approach.

People, past events and societies  

I can use my knowledge of a historical period to interpret the evidence and present an informed view.             SOC 3-01a

I can make links between my current and previous studies, and show my understanding of how people and events have contributed to the development of the Scottish nation.

SOC 3-02a


I can explain why a group of people from beyond Scotland settled here in the past and discuss the impact they have had on the life and culture of Scotland.                     SOC 3-03a


I can explain the similarities and differences between the lifestyles, values and attitudes of people in the past by comparing Scotland with a society in Europe or elsewhere.

SOC 3-04a


I can describe the factors contributing to a major social, political or economic change in the past and can assess the impact on people’s lives.

SOC 3-05a

I can discuss the motives of those involved in a significant turning point in the past and assess the consequences it had then and since.            SOC 3-06a

Through researching, I can identify possible causes of a past conflict and report on the impact it has had on the lives of people at that time.      SOC 3-06b


·       Evaluates a range of primary and secondary sources of evidence, to present valid conclusions about a historical period.

·       Draws on previous work to provide a detail explanation of how people and events have contributed to the development of the Scottish nation.

·       Provides reasons why a group of people from beyond Scotland settled here.

·       Describes the impacts immigrants have had on life and culture of Scotland.

·       Provides an account with some explanation as to how and why society has developed in different ways comparing Scotland to another society in Europe or elsewhere.

·        Describes factors which contributed to a major social, economic or social change in the past.

·       Draws reasoned conclusions about the impact on people’s lives of a major social economic or social change in the past.

·       Draws reasoned conclusions about the motives of those involved in a significant turning point or event in history.

·       Provides a justifies view of the impact of this significant historical event.

·       Identifies possible causes of past conflict, using research methods.

·       Presents in any appropriate form on the impact of people at that time.

It is immediately clear that the benchmarks add a new layer to the existing specification of Curriculum for Excellence. This is difficult to reconcile with the stated desire to simplify the narrative of the curriculum. It is thus hardly surprising that the benchmarks have been met with considerable scepticism by teachers on social media, and this week saw the publication of a thoughtful and considered, yet highly critical response from a group of STEM Learned Societies (see https://t.co/B3mDnglL9B). So what exactly is happening here, when a call to simplify the curriculum is met with a further spiral of specification (Wolf, 1995)? And what is wrong with this approach in any case?

Attempts to specify curriculum and assessment in detailed ways are not new. It is around hundred years since Bobbitt published his taxonomy of educational objectives. More recently in the United Kingdom, we have seen the emergence of the competency-based model that has underpinned vocational qualifications such as those produced by NCVQ in England and Scotvec in Scotland. Related to this has been the genesis and subsequent development of national curricula: from 1988, England’s National Curriculum set out attainment targets, expressed as lists of detailed outcomes, arrayed into hierarchical levels. Subsequent worldwide curriculum developments (for example, Scotland’s 5-14 curriculum, New Zealand’s 1993 Curriculum Framework, CfE in Scotland) have exhibited similar thinking. This approach has an instinctive appeal to those concerned with measuring attainment and tracking a school’s effectiveness. It provides a superficially neat way of categorising and measuring learning. The approach also attracted some support (especially in its early days) from some educationists. For example, Nash has talked of enabling learners “to have a sense of direction through planned and well-defined learning targets which are in turn based on defined criteria in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding”( Nash, in  Burke, 1995, p.162). Gilbert Jessup, the architect of the GNVQ competency-based model, stated that “statements of competence set clear goals for education and training programmes” and that “explicit standards of performance …… bring a rigour to assessment which has seldom been present in workplace assessment in the past” (Jessup, p.39). Jessup saw little difference between the competency-based model for vocational education and the emerging models of outcomes-based national curriculum, predicting that the National Curriculum would “result in more individual and small group project work, and less class teaching” (Jessup, 1991, p.78). Subsequent experience has of course demonstrated quite the opposite effect.

So what are the problems associated with this approach? I list some of well-documented issues here, focusing on generic critique of the model, rather than on a detailed analysis of specific benchmarks/subjects. Further posts on this blog will look at some of the subject areas such as social studies and science, offering a more finely focused critique of particular sets of outcomes.

  • The approach is complex, jargon-ridden and lends itself to bureaucracy. This criticism was levelled at the NCVQ model by Hyland who said that the model was “labyrinthine” in complexity and entirely “esoteric,” and as a consequence of all these factors, the model has proven to be unwieldy and difficult to access for both students and assessors (Hyland, 1994, p.13). Such issues have certainly been evident in Scotland in the creeping development of time-consuming, bureaucratic processes, and the subsequent exhortations for schools to reduce bureaucracy.
  • Specification of learning in this way has been shown to narrow learning, reducing the focus of lessons to what has to be assessed. Critics of this approach such as Hyland (1994) and Kelly (2004) were quick to point out that far from encouraging learner autonomy and flexibility in learning, the model inhibits it because of the prescriptive nature of many of the outcomes. Recent research in New Zealand (Ormond, 2016) indicates that specification of assessment standards has seriously narrowed the scope of the curriculum. Ormond provides an example of the Vietnam War, where some teachers omitted to teach the role of the USA in the war, while still meeting the requirements of the assessment standard.
  • Where assessment standards/benchmarks are too specific, they reduce teacher autonomy by filling lessons with assessment tasks and associated teaching to the test. Teaching thus becomes assessment-driven. In turn, this places great pressure on both teachers and students to perform – to meet the demands of the test. Performativity has been well-documented in the research. Its effects include stress on students and teachers, pressure to fabricate school image and manipulate statistics, and even downright cheating (see Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015, chapter 5)
  • Focusing on ticking off benchmarks encourages an instrumental approach to curriculum development. Our research in Scotland documented instances of strategic compliance – box-ticking – with the Es & Os (e.g. see Priestley & Minty, 2013). There is a tendency to only visit an area of learning until enough evidence has been gathered that it has been covered, then to move onto to another required area. This is not an educational approach designed to build deep understanding or construct cross-curricular links. Instead it atomises learning.
  • There are philosophical arguments about whether it is ethical in a modern democracy to define in detail what young people should become. The assessment benchmarks can be framed as narrow behaviourist statements of performance, which mould people to behave in particular ways – as such, they can be seen as being more about training (at best) and indoctrination (at worst), rather than as educational (see Kelly, 2004).

The above objections to the specification of tightly specified assessment criteria suggest that it is extremely unwise for Scotland to take Curriculum for Excellence in this direction, which moves the practical curriculum yet further from the aspirational goals set out in early documentation. It is clear that such specification has political appeal, offering the (arguably spurious) opportunity to track achievement; moreover, it can be framed as a response to those teachers who have long decried the Es & Os for being too vague. Nevertheless, this spiral of specification is dangerous, and Scotland would do well to learn from prior history of curriculum reform. A salutary example lies in the GNVQ model: initially this was specified as Units, Elements and Performance criteria; later specification added range statements and evidence indicators, as curriculum designers engaged in a Holy Grail quest to achieve total clarity. The result was anything but clear; instead teachers experienced all of the issues outlined above, as courses became increasingly complex, bureaucratic and difficult to teach.


Burke, J. (ed.) (1995). Outcomes, Learning and the Curriculum: Implications for NVQs, GNVQs and other qualifications. London: Falmer Press.

Hyland, T. (1994). Competence, Education and NVQs: Dissenting Perspectives. London: Cassell.

Kelly, A.V. (2004). The Curriculum: theory and practice, 5th edition. London: Sage.

Jessup, G. (1991). Outcomes: NVQs and the Emerging Model of Education and Training. London: Falmer Press.

Ormond, B.M. (2016, in press). Curriculum decisions – the challenges of teacher autonomy over knowledge selection for history. Journal of Curriculum Studies. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2016.1149225).

Priestley, M., Biesta, G. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Priestley, M. & Minty, S. (2013). Curriculum for Excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but. . .’. Scottish Educational Review, 45 (1), 39-52.

Wolf, A. (1995). Competence-Based Assessment. Buckingham: Open University Press.

A Statement for Practitioners: how useful is the new CfE guidance?

The publication this week of the much-awaited clarification of CfE raises more questions than answers for me (for the guidance documents, see https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Pages/CfE-delivery-plan.aspx). I felt a little dubious that the OECD’s call for a bold new approach and a simplified narrative was being addressed in such a short timescale, with a deadline of the start of the new school year. It seems to me that this is a complex and difficult undertaking that requires careful and critical reflection over a more sustained period of time. The guidance has now arrived; the question is – does it achieve its putative aims of clarifying and simplifying?

In some ways, it undoubtedly does. I am heartened to see a reinforcement of the message that bureaucracy should be reduced. This is now a consistent message from the government and its agencies, and it is one which local authorities and schools should heed. It is good to see a clear steer that assessment should not be driven by a process of ticking off Es & Os, but that instead these should inform planning; this is, after all, what they were originally designed for, only becoming identified as assessment standards in later documentation. Early guidance (for example the cover paper accompanying the draft Es & Os) demonstrated a sensitivity towards the dangers of assessment driving the curriculum, stating clearly that the outcomes ‘are not designed as assessment criteria in their own right” (CfE overarching cover paper, 2007). Similarly BTC3 stated:

The curriculum must be designed around the experiences and outcomes. They should be used to identify essential content, key skills and experiences. These should then be used to establish progression for learners by setting out the main elements which differentiate performance as learners progress within, and through, the levels.” (BTC3 summary paper, 2008)

Of course subsequent developments revealed a shift in emphasis. BTC5 (2010) not only characterised the Es & Os as standards for assessment, but went so far as to define a standard as ‘something against which we measure performance’. It is good see a return here to the thinking that underpinned the early days of CfE

Despite these encouraging messages, I am left disappointed by the guidance. First, there are inconsistencies in the document. For example, the first part talks about the primacy of the Es & Os and the benchmarks, and does not mention the purposes, principles and values that should underpin curriculum development. These are subsequently highlighted as key messages in the appendix, which offers a different focus. Significant aspects of learning are not mentioned in the first part of the document, then linked explicitly to the benchmarks in the appendix.

Second, the guidance seeks to simplify, but then adds a new layer of complexity – the benchmarks – which may drive assessment in the same tick-box fashion as did the Es & Os. This is a good example of the curricular phenomenon described as a spiral of specification by Alison Wolf (1995). It may be that a perceived additional clarity provided by the benchmarks will be welcomed by many teachers, who find the Es & Os vague and unhelpful. My view is that providing teachers with hundreds of detailed assessment criteria will simply continue to encourage bureaucratic box-ticking and convergent approaches to learning – and cause a concomitant increase in teacher workload. The following examples (Literacy: Listening and Talking) provide an illustration of the complexity and detail involved:

  • Contributes regularly in group discussions or when working collaboratively, offering relevant ideas, knowledge or opinions with supporting evidence.
  • Responds appropriately to the views of others developing or adapting own thinking.
  • Builds on the contributions of others, for example, by asking or answering questions, clarifying or summarising points, supporting or challenging opinions or ideas.
  • Applies verbal and non-verbal techniques appropriately to enhance communication, for example, eye contact, body language, pace, tone, emphasis and/or some rhetorical devices.
  • Uses appropriate register for purpose and audience.
  • Identifies features of spoken language and gives an appropriate explanation of the effect they have on the listener, for example, body language, gesture, pace, tone, emphasis and/or rhetorical device

These benchmarks form half a page out of the 48 pages of the Literacy benchmarks – we have similar statements for Numeracy and are promised a similar level of detail for all subject areas by Christmas. This does not look like a simplified narrative to me. The OECD exhorted Scotland to be bold in its CfE reforms. A bold approach would have been to abolish the Es & Os altogether. I believe these have greatly contributed to the bureaucracy afflicting schools, by encouraging audit approaches to curriculum development. While they remain (or are replaced by detailed benchmarks), Ministers’ calls for teachers to reduce bureaucracy will be ineffective; the main causes of bureaucracy are structural, and the Es and Os are a significant (although not the only) factor here. Other countries such as Ireland are moving away from this multi-level, over-complex approach to defining learning outcomes. And as the OECD review stated clearly, “How clearly aligned can be a curriculum that is both about four capacities, on the one hand, and about extensive Experiences and Outcomes, on the other?”. For an analysis which has informed the Irish approach, see http://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/23225.

As illustrated by the example above about assessment standards, CfE has often seemed to be an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of terminology and concepts. The Statement for Practitioners appears to continue this tradition, by adding yet more guidance, while apparently stating in the appendix that much of the existing documentation of CfE is still current. This does not seem to me to be in keeping with the call for a new narrative. It may be that subsequent guidance will move us towards a new and simplified narrative. At present I do not see this happening. The existing and often contradictory documentation that has emerged over time needs to be replaced by a single set of detailed CfE guidance that offers a clear and consistent message about the curriculum and its development processes. It may have been better to have avoided the short-term calls for the short piece of clarification represented by this document, and spent the time working on a more radical overhaul of the existing guidance. Of course this can still happen, but it requires a boldness that is not evident in this week’s publication of the Statement for Practitioners.


Wolf, A. (1995). Competence-Based Assessment. Buckingham: Open University Press

Delivering excellence and equity – some commentary on Scotland’s national education plan

The post-election period in 2016 has heralded a flurry of activity from the re-elected SNP and the appointment of a new Cabinet Secretary for Education. The next year or two will see policy development that puts education at the forefront of the nation’s priorities, all underpinned by the stated goal of closing the ‘attainment gap’ between those who have traditionally achieved well in education, and those who have not. The publication of Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education: a Delivery Plan for Scotland, coming as it does on the heels of the OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), marks an important turning point in Scottish education policy. There is much to be welcomed in this plan, but in my view there are also tensions and ambiguities in the document that will need acknowledging and addressing as the plan is implemented.

The positives

It is clear that there the plan contains some positive and constructive ideas to improve Scottish Education, including in places an acknowledgement that some of the developments associated with CfE have been unhelpful. Positive aspects include the following points.

  • A new emphasis on the importance of research in informing and underpinning the development of educational policy and practice. The forthcoming development of a national research strategy is well overdue, and it is to be hoped that this will provide a clear picture of how existing research can be utilised and applied, where the gaps lie, and how practitioners and policymakers might engage more constructively with research.
  • A restated commitment to root out overly bureaucratic practices around the new curriculum. There are strong statements here about the importance of not using the Experiences & Outcomes for assessment purposes ‘or in a tick-box way’ (p8) – although intriguingly a cryptic statement that ‘this is the exclusive role of the Significant Aspects of Learning’ (p.7); care will be needed to ensure that these do not simply replace the Es & Os as the audit tool for curriculum development, as seems to be the case already in some schools I have visited.
  • A decluttering of the curriculum. This has become a real problem for many schools, despite the clear aspiration in the early days of CfE to declutter (a sense of déjà vu here!). I note here that while this is a worthy aspiration, it is likely to not occur unless we develop systematic approaches for deriving content from curricular purposes (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/curriculum-for-excellence-and-the-question-of-knowledge/).
  • A rewriting of key policy guidance, and a recognition that there has been a proliferation of documentation associated with CfE. This new narrative will, I am sure, be welcomed by teachers, provided that it is clear and coherent.
  • The establishment of expert groups, including a panel of teachers to advise on workload issues. I am heartened here that the government is seeking to listen to those who bring specific expertise, whether of research or the day-to-day lived realities of working in schools. None of these perspectives provide a full picture on their own, but in combination they might allow for a better understanding of how policy is enacted, and the system dynamics that shape its enactment.
  • A review of governance. Presumably this has been announced with a view to creating the infrastructure for curriculum development – the strengthening of the middle that the OECD view called for. It has long been my view that the existing middle – the meso-level constituted by Education Scotland the local authorities – has focused on the wrong sort of leadership for developing the curriculum. I hope that the review will identify that what is required is not the large scale proliferation of guidance, nor the strengthening of micro-management of schools through accountability mechanisms – as has tended to be the case in recent years. Instead, I hope to see a recognition that the development of expertise – particularly the capacity to lead curriculum development – is badly needed. In a conversation with the celebrated American educationist Michael Apple this week, he described curriculum development as a lost art. He is right, and we need to rediscover it. The proposal in the plan to establish local networks of champions (presumably teachers with suitable experience and higher degrees in education) is a welcome part of this.

Tensions and ambiguities

Despite these positive messages, I also see some problems (and potentially some bear traps) in the plan. The document is an odd mixture of the vague and the highly specific; it fails to set out processes for some of its aspirational goals, but states, for example, that ‘in the first round of Read, Write, Count gift bags will be gifted to families of P2 and P3 children in November 2016’ (p.18). In particular, I would like to see more details on the following issues.

  • While the new focus on the importance of research is to be welcomed, I would like to have seen some detail about how new research might be generated, and how it might be used subsequently. To be fair, this may well be articulated more clearly in the forthcoming research strategy, but it would have been good to see some recognition of these issues at this stage. Related to this, the document does what many policy documents have done in recent years – it makes large claims without citing the supporting research evidence. It is important that future policy states clearly which research is being used to underpin developments (and also which research is not being used in some cases, where contradictory evidence exists). Without this reference to evidence, it can be difficult to separate out claims which are genuinely rooted in evidence, and those which are more spurious – and this document contains a few of the latter in my view, including the bold (and unevidenced) claim that ‘Scotland’s children and young people are now much more confident, resilient and motivated to learn’ (p.7) as a result of CfE.
  • The document shows little understanding that curriculum is a multi-layered field with different practices in each layer (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/mind-the-gap-curriculum-development-through-critical-collaborative-professional-enquiry-part-one/). This is compounded by the continual use of the metaphor ‘delivery’ (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/milkmen-or-educators-cfe-and-the-language-of-delivery/). In my view an awareness of this sort of language is important, as language frames our understanding of issues, and subsequently shapes our responses. Education is not a product (I fail to see how we can deliver digital literacy [p.6]); it is instead a process, and we need to get into the habit of thinking about how we structure pedagogic relations to develop people’s capacities. As I have written elsewhere in my blog, curriculum making in schools should be about the development of practices that are fit-for-purpose to realise the aims of the curriculum; it should not be a process of product placement or box-ticking. This document seems to recognise this, but persists with language that runs the risk of undermining its aspirations. To counter this we need to move from an outcomes approach to a process approach for developing the curriculum (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/approaches-to-school-based-curriculum-development/).
  • More serious is a major tension between the stated desire to increase school/teacher autonomy and an apparent tightening of accountability procedures (inspection, use of attainment data etc.). While I recognise the need to make intelligent use of data to inform decision-making, this document does not seem to recognise the well-documented dangers of performativity in the system. We know that accountability systems tend to produce perverse incentives, which can in turn lead to bureaucracy, intensification of workload, practices that can be difficult to justify in educational terms, and a disabling of teacher’s agency (for an analysis of these tensions, see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/20761). I hope that I am wrong, but my fear is that the apparently single-minded focus on attainment, which has emerged from the attainment challenge and the National Improvement Framework, will prove to be self-defeating, undermining some of the worthy aspirations in this document.

I conclude with reference to an issue, which while seemingly trivial, caused me some irritation when reading the plan. This is the repeated assertion that ‘the OECD has applauded the boldness of our approach’ (p.7). In fact, while the OECD mentioned a couple of times that Scotland has bold aspirations, their explicit emphasis was more about Scotland’s need to adopt bold[er] approaches. I may be splitting hairs here; however, my concern is that, historically, such self-congratulatory rhetoric has tended to stand in the way of reform by obscuring the need for change (many will remember the repeated assertion in the early years of CfE that it was just good practice, already in evidence in most schools).

Nevertheless, let us end on a positive note. This document has much to commend it; it contains many useful and constructive ideas for improving Scottish education; and provided we are cognisant of the pitfalls and tensions, it offers ample scope for addressing many of the concerns with current practices.


The delivery plan can be found at http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/06/3853/downloads

Mind the gap: curriculum development through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry (part one)

In recent years, as contributors to our edited book Reinventing the Curriculum (Priestley and Biesta 2013) illustrated, we have witnessed changing fashions in curriculum policy. A particular trend is an apparent reinstatement of the teacher as an active agent of change in developing the curriculum. And yet, as I hope my recent work has also shown (e.g. Priestley, Biesta & Robinson 2015), this construction of the teacher is inherently problematic for a number of reasons. First, teachers are a product in many ways of the systems within which and by means of which they work, and their professional language and professional practices are heavily shaped by their working environments. Second, teachers have had their work significantly circumscribed in recent years by heavy-duty curriculum regulation. This takes two main forms: input regulation, which is prescription of what is to be taught and how it should be taught (England’s 1990 National Curriculum is a good example of this sort of ‘teacher-proof curriculum’); and output regulation, which includes measurement of the outcomes of teachers work through inspections and league tables. The latter form of regulation is arguably more pernicious in its effects on teachers’ working practices, in that it has been shown to encourage performative cultures where, for example, schools become more concerned with fabricating an external image of efficiency and attainment than with developing educational practice. Third, teachers are often obliged to work in isolation, or at best in small groups within single schools. Such working can encourage an inward-looking approach to practice and discourage innovation, largely because teachers are deprived of access to relational and cognitive resources (e.g. ideas, support from colleagues in other schools, access to expertise and research findings).

In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that the aspirational aims of curricula such as Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), are hard to enact. In thinking about this issue, I am continually drawn to a metaphor inspired by the rather irritating and repetitive announcements that continually blare out when one travels by train – that is ‘mind the gap’. I note here the current popularity of this term in current discourses about achievement and social disadvantage, but I am talking here about a different kind of gap altogether. Some literature describes this gap as the one between policy and practice. This has been widely discussed, often in terms that place schools in deficit and teachers as the villains, confounding the best intentions of the worthy curriculum planners. I believe this view of curriculum development as fidelity between policy and practice is wholly misleading and extremely unhelpful. It also suggests that the notion of the teacher as an agent of change is really only about teachers implementing other people’s externally mandated change, rather than them being genuinely agentic in their work.

Instead we should be minding a different type of gap altogether. This is the gap between educational purpose and educational practice. Our teacher agency and curriculum research studies in Scotland suggests strongly that the connection between the two, even in the case of highly accomplished teachers, can be quite tenuous. We witnessed many examples of teachers working to short term goals (e.g. keeping classes occupied) or longer term goals which were more narrowly instrumental in nature (e.g. raising attainment, which can only ever be an imprecise proxy for a good education). Often purposes of education were conflated with methods, so that approaches such as cooperative learning, for instance, became the end of education planning rather than its means. Manifestly absent in many settings were longer term goals, such as a concern for equipping young people to live in a democracy as active and critically engaged citizens, with a concern and capacity to challenge deep underlying social inequalities and injustices.

I would argue that a root cause of this gap lies in the ways in which policy is framed at a national macro-level, and in its subsequent re-interpretation at the meso-level by bodies such as Education Scotland and local authorities. In the case of CfE, we have seen national policy framed as hundreds of learning outcomes, which can encourage narrow, reductionist approaches to developing practices, often typified by the audit of existing content against the outcomes, and a tick-the-box approach to implementing the curriculum. We have also seen a plethora of national and local guidance, as people (often removed from classrooms) have sought to interpret the curriculum for teachers. What has been lacking is a clearly articulated set of processes to allow professional practitioners to interpret and make sense of the curriculum for themselves, with suitable support (cognitive resources, critical friends etc.) to challenge the existing preconceptions that might lead to the new curriculum simply being interpreted through the lenses of existing practices. CfE was, after all heralded as being about transformational change, but how many schools can claim this has happened? I would further argue here that a more appropriate methodology for managing and promoting engagement with the new curriculum would have led to quite different results, leading to a closer articulation between the big ideas that should underpin educational practice and school-based practices themselves, and more critically engaged teachers who can become genuinely agents of change. In other words this would foster the development of curricular practices that are fit-for-purpose. In my next post, I will outline a project that has sought to do just this, with some interesting results.

More to follow in a few days…..

Priestley, M. & Biesta, GJJ (Eds.) (2013). Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic
Priestley, M., Biesta, G.J.J. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic.