Curriculum for what, exactly…..?


Published on ‘The Scotsman’ website on 1st March (the day when there were no actual newspapers in the East of Scotland!)

Scottish schools have now been using ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ as the basis of their teaching for eight years, after a lengthy gestation period which began in 2002 with the ‘National Debate on Education’. During that long process, the ideas of this new curriculum appeared to many to signal a new era in Scottish education, which was perceived as having become stale and complacent, resting on the laurels of an historic reputation it no longer deserved. Instead of the narrow road of scholarship, Scottish school pupils were to be educated towards the ‘four capacities’ – to become ‘responsible citizens’, ‘successful learners’, ‘effective contributors’ and ‘confident individuals’. How good that sounded – how desirable it seemed as an antidote to the many malaises affecting our young people at the start of the 21st century – we could look forward to young Scottish citizens who were ready to contribute to their society, who had confidence, who were individuals but could work in teams and who had learned….successfully.

If we had all stopped and thought, then perhaps two problems might have been identified. The first was the choice of language used to describe the capacities themselves – of course they sounded good, but might not other capacities have been equally desirable – say, ‘creative thinkers’ or ‘healthy persons’ or ‘kind people’ etc etc? And the second, much more importantly, was the issue of how much time should be spent trying to achieve each of the capacities…I mean, what exactly is an ‘effective contributor’ and how do you manage to measure whether or not wee Jimmy MacDonald’s become one? These four ideals were presented as equals – might not someone have stopped and said ‘but surely, the greatest of these is successful learning’? Aren’t schools really about learning, and trying to learn well with teachers providing knowledge and encouraging skills? And if schools are going to do all these other things, what are parents meant to be doing?

But CfE has ground on, being the basis for the education of nearly a whole school generation and yes, it may well be that across the piece young Scots are more articulate and more outward-looking than their predecessors. However, every schoolchild only spends 22% of their time at school across each year of their young lives and it would appear that the push towards citizenship and confidence is at the expense of old-fashioned learning – not declining Latin verbs (though no harm in that for some students) but fairly basic standards of literacy and numeracy, certainly as suggested by the latest statistics. Yes, Scotland needs to enable its young people to think for themselves and to cooperate with others and yes, young people need to want to go to school, but great teachers over the decades have been able to make hard basic learning fun; and if Scotland is crying out for engineers, they have to be good at Maths.

So the time has come for a radical reevaluation of what the purpose of sending children to school is. Such thinking needs to be encouraged by politicians who themselves need to recognise the political capital to be gained from a new national strategy – huge numbers of parents throughout Scotland are alarmed by the content and pace of their children’s education and by the failure of politicians and ‘educationalists’ alike to consult with them about what they want their children to achieve at school. There are other places, and other people, who can help make children succeed in other areas but parents depend on teachers to help their children read and write and count and then develop these skills in later years to the highest order they can achieve. The teaching profession in Scotland is full of highly skilled practitioners who have dutifully followed government policy as laid down by Education Scotland for decades, themselves little consulted, in practice, as to the way forward; many of them are losing heart.  Scotland needs again to have truly successful learners but it will require brave political thinking to achieve.



  1. Good points Cameron. CfE has been hamstrung by its lack of any form of curriculum theory since the beginning. On top of that, its vague and again, weakly conceptualised purposes; its lack of content; its failure to offer imaginative alternatives to assessment in BGE; its maintenance of the ‘senior phase’ as fundamentally distinct from the rest of it, all left teachers with no alternatives other than to graft previous practice onto a similar framework with different categories. Its biggest problem,however, was that it failed to engage teachers in its development. Had it started with the engagement of teachers in its design and purpose, and allowed them to forge shared understandings of its ‘big ideas’ that could lead them to developing a new set of practices, it might have had a chance. Ah well. Nice to be in touch with you again, BTW 🙂


  2. Agree with your comment on how little consultation there was, especially with secondary teachers. The lack of prescribed content for courses was constantly criticised by practitioners at the meetings I attended. This was met by the buzz words “flexibility” and “using one’s professional judgement”, fine in some contexts but not useful in preparing children for crucial exams. I felt from the start it was Primary school ethos foisted on Secondary school teachers. Yet another theorist’s project, underfunded and introduced at haste, involving the profession in huge amounts of extra work. There were never textbooks in existence in my field.


  3. Just worked out how to use this! Great article for opening educational debate! Timed nicely to distract diligent teachers using their ‘snow days’ to prepare or mark! 😇 For what it is worth my thoughts on the subject are as follow – get it right at the early stages and build on! All the ‘given’ capacities are valid, and as you say there are many others. If we concentrated on creativity, trial and error, problem solving, failure and success in the kindergarten ages (up to age seven, not four and a half) and enthused children with stories, songs, poems, mathematical experiences – in a child developmentally appropriate way through play – and harnessed all of this by modelling good manners, empathy, kindness and ‘knowledge and awe of our world’, and supported physical and mental health, we would have a good basis for future learning. That said our children will probably live to 100 and will have technology, as yet unknown, at their fingertips and I would like to see a holistic, happy and active approach to learning and acquiring knowledge in the primary school stages. It is the process and not the product that matters most. Understanding the learning is vital. Teachers should teach – perhaps in small groups, and the teaching and the content ought to be rigorous……but delivered, again as you say, by ‘great teachers making hard basic learning fun’ ….and successful. Thirteen years is a long time at school if you see little more than the four walls of various classrooms and are not very motivated. Thirteen years IS the life children are living, IS the community in which they function, and they therefore need societal skills, an ability to work as a team with people whom they may or may not like, but must respect. While obviously there is a personal end goal in having (what is usually called) skills for life, there is too a goal for society to rear healthy, interested, well qualified and pleasant citizens. In this 21st century I would hope that children and young people would work/operate – whichever word one thinks relevant – for intrinsic reward and not enforced external result. Nevertheless knowledge is very important, and high order thinking skills and academic achievement essential to our existence and future so ongoing debate amongst educationalists and politicians is necessary. The question might be who listens best?


  4. Good to see intelligent debate on this subject – I have seen education from many aspects – child one fitted in just fine and did well, child two diagnosed ( at same school) as ‘lazy’ and eventually we sent him to a school for dyslexic children in England – many experiences in working with special needs youngsters who had come from a variety of backgrounds ( Gogarburn Hospital School, many special schools, more recently mainstream schools) and remain baffled.


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