The OECD report on Curriculum for Excellence has been greatly anticipated but once you cut through the jargon and confront the arguments, there really isn’t much in it that wasn’t pretty clear to the average Scottish schoolteacher from the moment the programme was launched all those years ago.
The good news for the Scottish Government, and for Graeme Logan, the Director of Learning for Education Scotland, who last worked in a school 13 years ago, was that the distinguished panel of European educationalists who produced the report all thought that CfE was a great idea – ‘aspirational’ and ‘pioneering’ were just two of the words used to describe it. I suspect that when the Scottish Government issues its own comments on the report it will focus hard on the ‘vision’ and ‘creativity’ the report mentions. Now, I don’t agree with that at all – CfE, in its laudable efforts to expand the world of education beyond the narrowly academic has taken on far too much, making teachers responsible for everything in a child’s life. It is, in my view, time to reconsider what schools are actually for, particularly in the context of falling standards in Maths and Science in Scottish schools. However, it’s not the theory that bothered the committee, but the practice.
Because, while maintaining a fairly cheerful face throughout, these distinguished educationalists (it’s difficult to ascertain if any of them has recent school teaching experience) outline a whole host of problems which face Scottish teachers on a daily basis. Chief among these, of course, are the difficulties of the ‘Senior Phase’ i.e. the exam years – there is, according to the report, a ‘tension’ between the aspirations of CfE and qualifications, a tension so great that we must await a second report to find out how they think we should deal with those crucial years. Everybody in Scottish education knows this: a holistic curriculum like CfE which wants us to be training citizens, contributors and individuals as well as learners, inevitably does not square well with the demands of Higher Physics, university entrance or employment. The authors of the report are fairly disparaging about ‘traditional academic knowledge’ in a way that is very much at odds with the separate subject basis of our exams. I fear that, when we see the second report, it might be used as an excuse for a real dismantling of the current exam system. On this issue, as with others relating to the school curriculum, there needs, of course, to be consultation with parents, who, astonishingly, are barely mentioned at all in this very long document. I think parents want their kids to know stuff, and will also be very fearful of Scotland’s gold standard exam system being mucked about just when there’s a possibility of things going back to ‘normal’ after the educational chaos of the pandemic.
In fact, the answer now, as it was a decade ago, is to halt CfE after S3 (or preferably S2) and accept that, if academic standards particularly in Maths and Science, aren’t going to drop further, most young people need more focus and depth in the last three or four years of school. Educationalists may not like separate subjects (hence the Broad General Education that runs to S3 in most Scottish schools) but young people decide what they like early on and then focus on these subjects. This is something that independent schools in Scotland always recognised – the vast majority have never paid much attention to the philosophy of CfE after S2. The report says that this issue was ‘the obstacle to the full rollout of CfE’ and we await, with trepidation, the supposed solution.
Two other issues emerged as central criticisms – firstly, the complexity of the ‘multi-layered curriculum framework’ – how are teachers supposed to decide which bits to use at any one stage in their planning? There are endless sets of objectives, targets, approaches all underpinned by the infamous four capacities. This problem combines with two others, according to our European colleagues, one being the vast volume of documentation teachers in Scotland are expected to plough through, documentation which is revised or replaced every few months in order to give Education Scotland’s vast staff something to do.
Then there is the difficulty of determining who is actually in charge of CfE. Basically, having set the thing in motion, it has very much been left to teachers and Heads to put it into practice. The report calls for much more definite line management of this complicated curriculum.
Which all, of course, leads to the enormous elephant in the …classroom – teacher workload. Teachers in Scotland, the report finds, spend much more time in the classroom actually teaching than their colleagues in virtually every country developed country. On one level, that’s rather a good thing, because that’s what the job is essentially about – helping children, as individuals and in classes, reach their potential.
However, how are teachers supposed to collaborate, think and reflect together as they navigate the theory and practice of CfE if they are constantly helping struggling students to read better or trying hard to get kids through National 5 Chemistry? The intensity of a working day with perhaps, one period off to prepare, mark, deal with individual children etc etc doesn’t really allow for much ‘blue sky’ thinking – except when teachers are thinking about lying on a beach. In those countries with better educational outcomes, like Finland, teachers have much more time to collaborate. So, as a first step in dealing with the practical problems arising from this report, I suggest that the new Cabinet Secretary for Education reduces actual classroom contact in Scottish schools to enable teachers to confer and build the curriculum with confidence. The SNP pledged to recruit 3,500 new teachers in their manifesto and that would be a great help in cutting the workload of existing teachers and thus dealing with the problems made clear in the OECD report.