No More Curriculum for Excellence?

Photo by Cristobal Cobo Romani

In a recent interview for the TESS, Professor Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian, was discussing the recent upsurge in interest in Scottish history, and linking it to the newly-found confidence of the Scottish people in electing a majority SNP government. In education, this aspiration is also reflected, he claimed, in the term ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, before  warning – and revealing the self-doubt of his own and previous generations – that ‘if it doesn’t turn out to be excellent…then it could be a contradiction in terms.’

While I am about to agree with him in one respect, and argue that it’s time for the term to be dropped, I would contend that if the ‘it’ in Professor Devine’s statement refers to the curriculum frameworks, or to the values, purposes and principles of the new curriculum, or even to the pedagogical approaches underpinning the new philosophy, then it could be argued that ‘it’ is already excellent. I have certainly yet to hear any strong arguments against, or credible alternatives to, any of the above, and the number of endorsements from leading educational figures, both in the UK and in other parts of the world, would appear to reinforce that view.

Problems arise when the expectation is that the curriculum, rather than people, will deliver excellence, or an excellent experience for learners. This manifests itself most clearly for example when a local authority claims, as one does elsewhere in the same edition of the Times Ed that smaller schools will be unable to deliver ‘it’. Have they ever heard of virtual social networks?  Is the word Glow ringing any bells, for example?

However, another issue, and one which is easily solved, is when a name persists beyond its natural usefuleness. I remember for example, after one of the revisions of Higher English when, to avoid confusion, the new Higher was labelled ‘Higher Still’. Years later, when the revisions were well established and there was no alternative, it was still common for people to refer to the fact that they were ‘doing Higher Still’, a term which by then had become redundant. The danger is that the longer the name persists, the easier it is for the sceptics and the cynics to convince themselves that opting out is a viable option.

Curriculum for Excellence is here. It is not the future, but the present. The original authors were right in using the term to reflect the aspirational nature of the curriculum, but perhaps now it is time to move on and talk simply about ‘the Scottish Curriculum’.  I, for one, will be trying to follow my own advice in the new academic session.

11 thoughts on “No More Curriculum for Excellence?

  1. In a climate where national and local government cuts are reducing the resources on hand – in terms of materials and practitioners – within schools, to lay the responsibility for delivering excellence from what arrived as a half-baked cake solely with the “people” who attempt to turn the laudable ideology of CfE into a practical reality – teachers and managers of the day-to-day realities of schools – is at best naïve. To then suggest that Glow – a largely ignored resource for good reason – is the
    goodly knight in dot com armour to rescue the delivery of CfE where schools find difficulty only bolsters this perception. Will Glow restore the schools and departments charged with delivering this thing to full quota so that the practicalities of implementing CfE are manageable? Will it provide the monetary resources to allow schools to get on with the job? Will it bring the financial security to LAs that will stop them from closing successful schools such as Ridgepark in Lanark where CfE has been fully embraced and the ethos and work done there praised by HMIe amongst other bodies? Somehow I don’t see it. And this from a self-confessed tech geek who embraced and promoted Glow when it first arrived! It’s time to get real, Bill, and face the realities of the day-to-day workings of schools, not promote the false notion that the curriculum and guidance are firmly established and that in tools like Glow the solution to its implementation are readily at hand.

  2. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. That schools and local authorities are now operating within reduced budgets is not disputed, and we could discuss who is responsible for that for ever and a day. Where I would disagree with you however, is when you talk about a lack of resources (if we think of resources for the moment in terms of teaching materials and so on). Never have more – free – resources been more readily available to teachers.
    I am not a particular fan of Glow, but it is one of a number of tools which provide collaborative opportunities for schools, and smaller or remote schools in particular. It is also a resource in which local authorities have already invested heavily, so to ignore its potential would seem to me to be grossly irresponsible. If there are particular problems with it in particular areas (and it is being used to great effect in some parts of the country) then they need to be addressed and fixed.
    Of course, none of this deals with local authority decisions to close schools or to reduce staffing levels, but then that wasn’t the point of the blogpost. As I said in the original post, I have yet to hear or read of a better alternative to the curriculum as described, but I would be perfectly happy to provide you with the platform to describe your own solutions to what – in your own words – appears to be a pretty bleak picture.

  3. Pingback: Curriculum for Excellence and the Diderot Effect | Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

  4. Good post, again, Bill. Names change over time, but it’s what teachers do in the classroom that matters. That’s maybe why CfE appeared ‘half-baked’ to people like Paul – you have to add the ‘egg’ to the recipe – otherwise teachers would just be low-level technicians implementing someone else’s instructions. Keep up the positive messages!

  5. Good to hear from you Frank and thanks for visiting. Sadly, I think a few teachers in recent years were happy to be ‘implementing someone else’s instructions’ and to some extent the system encouraged that. The curriculum review sent out a clear message that that isn’t what any of us wants from a teacher any more. You might also want to read Kenny Pieper’s thoughts on the subject over on his excellent blog Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday http://justtryingtobebetter.wordpress.com/

  6. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my original comment, Bill. I appreciate that my comment was not necessarily focused upon the main point of your original blogpost and I should not only have stated this, but also provided comment upon your point. Sorry for that.

    As to the original point, I am fully in agreement with you, it is time to alter our discourse and talk about the Scottish Curriculum: it is, as you state correctly, “the present”. Likewise, as I think I stated, I agree with your perception of the ideology: there is much of merit in the ideology that forms the basis of the curriculum and very little to argue with.

    Nevertheless, my main point was that to turn this into a practical reality requires proper resources; proper staffing and finances are the key to this and without these implementing the curriculum to full effect will be difficult for many schools, large and small. Maintaining experienced teachers with good practice and introducing new ones with fresh ideas is also paramount to striking the right balance, as Kenny Pieper suggests in his blog. With the present climate of budgetary cuts, this is not possible, to the detriment of the implementation of the new curriculum.

    As Frank Crawford suggests above, you have to add the “egg” to “the recipe”. This has always been the case, no matter the name or shape of the curriculum: good practice is good practice; and I would suggest that for many excellent teachers the ideology and aspirations of the new curriculum sit in line with their own ideology, aspirations for young people and in line with their day-to-day pedagogy. To add the “egg” (to prolong the metaphor!) requires doing so without the hands being tied behind the back – unfortunately, the financial climate and its implications for Education leaves many good schools and practitioners in a position where they can only try to operate with their hands tied. That is my main concern.

    In terms of the curriculum being half-baked, however, I was making a different point entirely. At present, schools and practitioners are still in a position where they can only see part of the picture; and this will remain until the full picture is unveiled and we are knowledgeable about what is to come in the senior phase of the curriculum. Teaching towards an exam, not encouraging learning of a subject, is a problem at present. I can appreciate if holding back information about what is to happen in the senior stages – the new qualifications, etc. – perhaps was meant to encourage the preparation for these years without the obstacle of one of the end products in mind: how to prepare young people to achieve as successfully as they can within their exams. Nonetheless, good design suggests continuity of successful learning based on progression and achievement. It is difficult to ensure that this will take place without knowing where we are headed, so to speak; and, as such, the design of courses in the early years of Secondary schools is affected. Moreover, much like the much needed change in discourse that you suggest with relation to the name of the curriculum, where you state that “the danger is that the longer the name persists, the easier it is for the sceptics and the cynics to convince themselves that opting out is a viable option”, the longer the delay in providing sufficient information and guidance about the senior phase, the more scepticism is invited to prevail.

    To return to your blogpost, Bill, I find much of merit there within. My comments are not necessarily based on your views, but on the difficulties of moving from the ideology to the practicality of implementing the Scottish Curriculum, especially within the present financial climate which simply cannot be ignored. The “potential” of Glow, on the other hand . . . that’s for another day.

    Kind regards,
    Paul

  7. Hi Paul,
    Thanks again for coming back. Two brief points from me:

    ‘Maintaining experienced teachers with good practice and introducing new ones with fresh ideas is also paramount to striking the right balance, as Kenny Pieper suggests in his blog.’

    I totally agree that this is crucial to the success of our school system. Where I disagree with you is that I believe, even in the ‘present climate of budgetary cuts’ this HAS to be possible. Huge responsibility on the teachers in our schools, but teaching is a hugely responsible job so all of our teachers need to be hugely committed and thoroughly professional.

    Point two. If teachers and schools are waiting to see what the external exams in S4-S6 look like before reviewing their curriculum, I think they are making a mistake. Unlike you, I don’t believe this to be ‘where we are headed’. I believe where we should be headed is the development of the four capacities in equal measure. Formal exams and qualifications may well be part of that, but should not determine the experiences and outcomes for young people in the preceding years.

    Enough from me for now. I’d like to hear other views on the subject.

  8. Hugely interesting discussion, particularly when viewed alongside Kenny Pieper’s blog. It’s true that we mustn’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater as regards existing good practice, what is painfully clear to me though is that there are many teachers who are “stuck” in doing what they’ve always done and, CfE aside, don’t seem willing/able/both to move with the times as regards modernising their approach. Children can access the web easily at home and on their mobiles, they are skilled multimedia communicators and see blogging/social networking/video calling as the norm – to deny them the opportunity to weave their existing skills and knowledge into their classroom lives to facilitate and enrich their learning (not to mention engaging them) is to deny them a vital opportunity and – increasingly – a vital life skill. Employers want team players, thinkers, do-ers, problem solvers. Formal exams and qualifications are increasingly going to be shown, I think, to be less and less valued. The present round of cuts can’t be allowed to be seen as a shackle: let’s be honest, if we’re VC-ing and saving money on travel expenses for CPD and saving on buying materials (it’s all online!) then there’s no reason why we can’t embrace the curriculum, facilitate the development of the capacities and provide the children in our care with the best opportunities REGARDLESS of the budget.

    Idealism over for the evening. Back to 6music…

    Cheers.

  9. Again, Bill, thanks for reading and commenting upon my points. In truth, I don’t think we’re really that far apart in our beliefs. Formerly as an English Teacher and now within my role in Learning Support, it has always been my belief that Education is about much more than the qualifications gained: it is in a large part about the experiences gained. The importance of the four capacities and emphasis on experiences and outcomes in the new curriculum is not something new in terms of my own and many, many others’ pedagogy. What it does, though, is present this belief in black and white and provides us with a formal discourse in which to define what I believe has always stood at the heart of good learning and teaching.

    That said, however, I think it would be a mistake to believe that those not involved in this side of Education also recognise the importance of developing the four capacities above the acquisition of formal qualifications: young people, parents, employers and FE institutions will continue to judge for some time success in terms of exam passes, not lists of “I can” statements, and it is disadvantageous to not recognise this in terms of course planning. Part of the journey that is learning, in such a context, therefore, must be focused upon what these stakeholders perceive as the end product, too; and so, must also be considered when planning the experiences and outcomes we hope will develop the four capacities.

    In terms of teachers being “hugely committed and thoroughly professional”, I don’t think I have encountered many colleagues who are not both of these things. And, despite the budgetary cuts, they take on added responsibilities to provide the best possible experiences and outcomes for young people that they can offer. Nonetheless, the reality is that this is becoming increasingly difficult as cuts are made and this can only be to the detriment of the implementation of the new curriculum. An extreme example is the forthcoming closure of Ridgepark School that I mentioned previously, a school where teachers have worked extremely hard to establish an ethos, environment and identity where the new curriculum is fully embraced. Due to cuts, all of this is to be dismantled and, as it were, kicked into touch, in order to make savings and merge four different areas of service in the one locale, a measure that will undoubtedly result in the detriment of experiences and outcomes, learning and teaching, not to mention moral and sense of worth amongst staff and young people. Unfortunately, while I acknowledge Bryan Gregg’s very valid point in the previous comment that there are many ways we can use IT to enhance learning experiences and outcomes while also keeping costs down in doing so, like the loss of teaching staff in schools throughout the country, this is an example of where virtual reality cannot offer a viable solution to the problems imposed by budgetary cuts.

  10. Points well made Paul. I wouldn’t comment on the decision to close any particular school when I don’t know the circumstances, but, as I said earlier, there is no doubt that budgetary cuts are forcing local authorities to make some very hard decisions.

  11. Pingback: Curriculum for Excellence and the Diderot Effect at Just Trying To Be Better Than Yesterday

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