Tag Archive for curriculum for excellence

More Change Ahead?

Depending on when you measure it from, the new Scottish Curriculum (or Curriculum for Excellence as it’s more commonly known) has been around in one form or another for approximately nine years given that the report from the Curriculum Review Group was published in 2004. In these days of rapid changes in society one could argue that a decade would be around the right sort of time to begin the process of looking again at what’s happening in our education system. However, in terms of the process of implementation of the new National Qualifications, which most Secondary teachers rightly or wrongly will be measuring implementation of the new curriculum by, we’re only half-way through. The cohort who are the first to sit the new NQs are currently in S3 with potentially three more years of school ahead. With no one yet to sit the new qualifications, I can just imagine the sharp intake of breath at the mere suggestion of a major curriculum review. However, in case you’d missed them there have been two substantial reports on the progress and direction of change in Scottish Education in recent months. As a result I’ve been wondering two things. Firstly, does this signal the beginnings of further policy change? And secondly, are there any overlapping themes in these reports which might signal the direction of any such changes should they occur?

The reports I refer to could almost be looked at in the opposite order from the sequence they were published. The most recent one “By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education” was published this week by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. This report is more standard in its format and approach having taken a series of written submissions and produced a report brimming with numerous recommendations. Whilst clearly aiming to improve Education in the future it does so by attempting to paint a picture of the current situation and then a make a series of recommendations which could be implemented in the short to medium term.

The first of the reports, published last month, is “By 2025, Scotland will be regarded as a world-leading learning nation” by the Goodison Group in Scotland and Scotland’s Futures Forum. This report takes a radically different format. Having held a series of events with different groups of stakeholders the final report takes the form of scenarios. It presents four possible visions of the future and outlines approaches groups could take to engaging with these scenarios. To me therefore, this would seem to be more about identifying the future we wish to achieve and working out the necessary steps we ought be taking to get there.

Obviously I can’t really do justice to both reports here, you’ll need to read them yourself, but what sort of change do they indicate? Are there any overlapping themes? For me, there are two major similarities between the two reports. Both seem to indicate that we still have a lot to do in terms of equality & social justice and that sufficient changes to the structures and processes of schools have yet to be achieved in order to meet the needs of our citizens in the 21st Century. This is perhaps best summarised by the axes in the following diagram from the GGiS report:

This I think correlates with the following recommendations from the CfSPP report:

2 The Scottish Government should make clear that it views Curriculum for Excellence as a long-term process of iterative change rather than a one-off programme intended to achieve only specific short-term objectives such as the introduction of new qualifications.

5 Change processes in Scottish education are not as effective as they should be. The improvement of these processes must be seen as a matter of the highest priority.

7 The allocation of support for pupils and schools experiencing disadvantage should be reviewed and needs to be better targeted. More of the available support should follow the individual disadvantaged learner.

8 Talented staff should be encouraged to teach and remain in schools in the most disadvantaged areas. Such schools should be resourced in a manner that will make them attractive places in which to work and develop a career.

10 A dedicated centre for the improvement of educational outcomes in Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities should be established.

17 At all levels of the system, vigorous and sustained effort is needed to create in Scottish education a sense of common endeavour, an understanding that learning is co-produced and a culture of mutual respect.

20 The autonomy of schools should be greatly extended. As a general principle, decisions that can competently be taken at school level should not be taken elsewhere.

By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education

There are more also, but I think that’s more than enough to demonstrate the overlap. So, is a replacement to CfE on the horizon? The CfSPP report rightly points out with its first recommendation that there’s no real need. All of these ambitions are set out in the Curriculum for Excellence documents and there is therefore just a need to realise these ambitions still. I suppose that ideally it shouldn’t really matter what we call these policy initiatives as long as we achieve the outcomes we hope and aim to achieve, but I suspect the name might well matter. A.V. Kelly (no relation) rightly points out that the success and failure of changes to educational policy lies in the hands of teachers. Whilst many might baulk at the idea of further change, it could be argued that if there is a widespread perception in 2016 that it’s job done because the cohort has progressed all the way through the new NQs then any further substantial change might be difficult to achieve, perhaps creating the need to indicate the necessity of further change through a “new” policy. Either way, for these much more ambitious outstanding aims of Curriculum for Excellence, it will require a much more sophisticated approach to implementation, support and leadership than has been managed thus far. I think the approaches described in the GGiS report demonstrate the sorts of professional development opportunities which will be needed, as well as the CfSPP’s recommendations on leadership and research, such as:

32 Steps should be taken to strengthen educational research in Scotland.

One thing I am very pleased about is that both of these reports encourage us to continue on the journey we’re already on. If we don’t continue to persevere with this direction of travel as a profession and a society I fear that one day in the future these sorts of reports will begin to look a lot different and begin demanding that we start taking backward steps instead…we only need to look South to see just how possible this is.

The business end of CfE

For Scotland’s Secondary Schools, we’re now reaching the business end of the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. By this I mean that we’re about to begin the process of implementing the new National Qualifications – I don’t for one second think we’ve yet got anywhere close to actually implementing the curriculum as a whole, that will take some time yet. However, as we reach this difficult moment of significant change there is a natural apprehension which seems to be leading to ever increasing confusion.

Given the current level of coverage of CfE in the press, any Scottish teacher is likely to be asked their thoughts on all of this, and I am no different in this regard. Where I do feel particularly fortunate, is the opportunity I had on an 18 months secondment to have the reasons for this change clearly and repeatedly explained to me through challenging and engaging discussions – if only this opportunity could have been made available to more. As such, I am very much in favour of the changes and more than comfortable with the direction of travel. If you watch the news or read the papers, you would think that I must be completely unique in this regard, I know for a fact I am not, however I would accept that we seem currently to be in the minority. So then, I thought I should try to outline some of my own thoughts on all of this on here…

Why do we need Curriculum for Excellence at all? Why do we need to change?

There’s a strange contradiction around CfE. On the one hand it is often described as “transformational change”, and yet on the other you’ll often hear teachers state “it’s what we do already”. So if it’s not a change, why all the fuss? As far as I’m concerned, little of CfE is new. Everything in the documents was already happening either in pockets of the country, or in pockets of time throughout the country. Or, as in the case of formative assessment, occurring throughout the country most of the time, but superficially.

CfE is about refocusing the entirety of the school curriculum onto a common purpose and striving to take these pockets of good practice and make them universal. It raises the bar and says that the quality of learning and teaching must be improved across the country, at all stages, and at all times. It takes widely accepted pedagogies such as formative assessment and active learning and builds them into Government policy. Sure, there have been flaws in the implementation of this change, but that doesn’t for one second diminish the need for, or the nature of, the change in the first place.

Why do we need to change the National Qualifications?

The Scottish Qualifications had got themselves into a bit of a guddle. We still have the now dated looking Standard Grades sitting alongside a suite of National Qualifications which don’t quite articulate. On top of that, if we’re changing/improving our view of learning, teaching and assessment surely it makes sense to update the Qualifications also? Otherwise, if we were ultimately leading to the same destination as before, the chances of us being able to make the desired changes would be reduced. Again, as always with these things, this could probably have been done better – but I think that the SQA have done a pretty stirling job under the circumstances.

Why should National 4 have no national exam?

This one’s an obvious one to me. One of our current equivalent courses to National 4, Intermediate 1,  is very much a skills based course. The unit content is very applied and the whole course could be approached from a “skills for work” type perspective. However, 100% of the grade for the course is determined by a traditional examination paper in a hall, in silence. Whilst this approach to assessment might be appealing to many teachers (who all successfully navigated the academic world and therefore view it favourably), the media (likewise) and many parents (either likewise, or if not, we spend so much time telling them that exams are all that matter that they believe us) but it’s simply not a valid form of assessment for this course.

Now, obviously, any variation from this form of assessment is going to bring issues of reliability – but these need to be dealt with in their own right. We can’t set about solving issues of reliability by making assessments invalid for the forms of learning we’re hoping to achieve. That’s not to say that tests can’t form part of the course assessment, but they do not need to form it all and they do not need to be set nationally. This more local approach to assessment frees up learners and teachers to take a more flexible approach to the learning.

I will finish this one by pointing out that I am (hopefully) about to receive an MEd (SCQF level 11) and I haven’t sat one exam, and all of the assessment has been internal. Even worse, there isn’t even an SQA equivalent to tell the University what they should be assessing! I simply do not understand why we cant take a more valid approach to assessment at SCQF level 4 if we can achieve it at level 11!

Why should schools be changing from 2+2+2 to 3+3?

This one’s particularly contentious just now. The reason 3+3 appeals to me is that it has the potential to allow us to treat our learners as people rather than cohorts. We currently have a situation whereby everyone churns through the two-year middle school in all subjects, which is a legacy of Standard Grade, whether its appropriate for them or not. I would like to reach a point where students are choosing courses at appropriate levels and for appropriate time-periods based on their own needs. I believe that the 3+3 model has a better chance of allowing for this. I’m also in favour of reducing the time we spend jumping through SQA hoops from four years to three in the Secondary school. Whilst the new National Qualifications should be more in line with CfE than the current qualifications, they’re still going to be national examinations for the large part. The more time we’re free to focus on and develop learning for its own sake the better I say. Let’s spend as little time capturing and certifying this learning as possible.

Why has all this proved to be so difficult?

Change is difficult. We’re creatures of habit. Things haven’t been helped by some of the approaches to implementation – but it was always going to be an uphill battle. Everyone was on board when it was just the four capacities, but as soon as it came to having to make real changes to the day-to-day, it became a lot tougher. What’s difficult just now is trying to work out who has the genuinely thought through grievances and who is just shouting no because they don’t like change. I think we should be very careful not to lump these groups together as both are in many ways understandable and predictable.

For many, the problem with the National Qualifications lies with the speed of their implementation. But this only applies if you’re sticking with 2+2+2. For these schools, which have chosen to ignore the national guidance, they are finding themselves in the awkward position of starting these qualifications before they have finished being developed in August of this year. But they knew this when they made their decision regarding the curricular model. For schools moving towards a 3+3 model, they will not begin teaching these qualifications until August 2013 – which is inline with the implementation timeline.

In my own opinion (for what it’s worth), there should be no more delays. I don’t believe the last one achieved anything…we’re creating a curriculum, which while still obviously flawed (they always will be), is an improvement on what has come before. Let’s get on with it for the benefit of our learners.

The uncomfortable truth about Curriculum for Excellence

The problems facing Curriculum for Excellence have finally been identified. Carole Ford demonstrated them clearly in her recent article in the TESS.

If you know me your jaw may well now be on the floor. What? Fearghal agrees with Carole Ford’s piece!?! No, rest assured, I haven’t done a U-turn. No, I don’t agree with her points at all, but I think she unintentionally demonstrated why CfE is struggling to gain traction in so many parts of the country. Obviously there are many issues such as support, time, funding etc.; but perhaps the greatest barrier is the support for school leaders in understanding the change, which then impacts on their ability to lead the changes in their schools.

There are many points in her piece which I disagree with, but I’ll pick out a small sample to illustrate my point. In reference to literacy and numeracy she says:

pupils who fail to develop appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy skill in primary school rarely make good this deficit later in the educational process. The CfE solution to this is not, as one might expect, to focus attention on the primary years of schooling but to place responsibility for both onto secondary teachers. Thus we have physics teachers teaching literacy and French teachers teaching numeracy

I find this statement to be shockingly inaccurate for two reasons. Firstly, CfE is continuing to place a strong focus on literacy, numeracy (& health and well being) in the primary stages as well as secondary. And secondly, secondary teachers should not be ‘teaching literacy’ in place of their subject specialisms – but rather using their subject areas as contexts to develop these skills where appropriate. Throughout the broad general education the intention is to improve young people’s literacy and numeracy levels – this is not the sole domain of primary teachers, as any secondary teacher will tell you (bemoan)! Whilst there may well be a number of secondary schools around the country which are requiring their staff to be ‘teaching numeracy’ in place of their subject area, I would argue that this is not the fault of CfE, but of the school leaders who have misinterpreted the documentation.

She goes onto use a similar argument regarding interdisciplinary learning:

interdisciplinary learning, advocated by CfE, is a whole bone of contention in its own right. Why is taking a teacher out of his comfort zone a good thing? Do you wish to be treated by a doctor who is operating out of his comfort zone? The logic of interdisciplinary learning is that I will make better progress in German if the teacher is not fluent in German but pretty good at French or Spanish. In the language of Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”

It’s surprising that an article which criticises the lack of evidence presented to support CfE only itself contains a quote by Homer Simpson, but anyway, interdisciplinary learning. I personally don’t believe that interdisciplinary learning is the holy grail one might think it is if you listen to certain people, but I still think the quotation above misses the point. Interdisciplinary learning is not supposed to be about French teachers teaching German. It’s supposed to be about providing young people with opportunities to see their learning in a more joined up way and be beginning to make connections between the artificial barriers we’ve created between the subjects. This is a skill which I always say marks out the top candidates in Biology, and it is one which is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world.

Once again, there may well be many teachers out there having to teach a subject outside their comfort zone under the banner of interdisciplinary learning and CfE, but I think Carole Ford is inadvertently highlighting an issue with her colleagues – not Curriculum for Excellence. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are many barriers facing the implementation of CfE, but not all of them lie with the policy documents or the national agencies – as demonstrated by this article.


Following my post this morning, I got an interesting reply on twitter from Don Ledingham;

@ We are thinking about setting up an event for staff to develop such a framework for EL Any ideas how we can give teachers ownership?
Don Ledingham

I was, of course, very intrigued and replied as follows;

@ Wow. A cracking question can I give it some thought? We should also ask how we can give learners ownership too? Event for them 1st?
Fearghal Kelly

This has since snowballed on twitter and has now evolved into #LearnMeet, which is beginning to look something like this;

My Idea for 1st #LearnMeet is a central Edinburgh venue, for senior pupils (S6) to give their ideas and opinions. Held after school hours.
Ruairidh Nicolson

I’m struggling to say what I think on all this, especially in 140 characters – so I thought I’d try a wee blog post instead…I’d like to start by saying I have nothing against the suggested format for a LearnMeet proposed above by Ruairidh - it could be great and I’d be encouraging our Seniors along. However, I think this is disjointed from the original discussion.

I really like Don’s idea, and I think it’s important that pupils and parents have opportunities to input into this framework…but this needs to be done as part of the system. Schools and Local Authorities need to continue to increase the opportunities for a wider range of stakeholders to formally input into the direction of learning and teaching in schools – but this needs to be taken seriously and carried out properly. If the students and parents consulted are to feel as though their opinion really matters, they need to be giving it in an appropriate context…which can of course be augmented by social media, but not entirely reliant on it. And if those who will be developing the framework are to take this input seriously, they need to be confident in the mechanism by which it was acquired…i.e. not in a fringe, twilight event with a small selection of our learners.

I think I would frame this process as updating East Lothian’s Teaching & Learning Policy, which as far as I know hasn’t been touched since 2007. I would certainly be wanting to involve as many pupils, parents and staff as possible in the process through a combination of physical face-to-face groups and online engagement with a clear outcome/framework produced as a result…

A framework for learning & teaching

The current trend of giving a document a title which doesn’t match its contents is not new. Building the Curriculum 3 is guilty of this too, a ‘framework for learning and teaching’ it is not. As far back as April 2009, I’ve shared on this blog how I used my interpretation of this document to try to develop a pedagogy which would meet its aims and principles. Arriving at this interpretation was not easy, and I’m sure others have arrived at different ones. The subsequent implementation of this interpretation has not been straightforward either. It’s quite difficult to develop and change something as complex as your approaches to learning and teaching in relative isolation. All of which leaves me with little surprise that many practicing teachers across Scotland are still at a bit of a loss as to what Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to mean for them and their learners beyond the content in the Experiences and Outcomes and the infamous changes in approach to assessment.

It is for this reason that I think the introduction of the learning cycle model and learn2learn at my school is being so positively received. This actual framework for learning and teaching is filling the vacuum left by the Curriculum for Excellence documents by providing teachers with something concrete to build learning experiences around. The implementation of the model is also being supported by those who’ve helped develop it – and crucially – use it day in day out. I’ve already begun to demonstrate how this approach relates to the literature and my experience of using it so far suggests that it has a positive impact on learning (in its broadest sense). I’m also finding that this model is in no way restrictive and actually provides vast potential for development of practice – but in a focused way.

I think all of this provides us with lessons on how to move forward. It’s not, as some would argue, that all secondary teachers are resistant to change. It’s that they need clear guidance and support to make change. In an ideal world we’d all be able to develop our own practice collaboratively based on literature and evidence, within very broad guidance – but this is just simply not realistic. Can Scotland now learn from past mistakes and develop the guidance which will actually impact on classroom practice and the crucial support to make it happen? I hope so, but I have my doubts.