It Should Have Been Messier

Here we are, a decade on from the launch of one of the most radical and visionary curriculum frameworks anywhere in the developed world, and sadly the focus of the mainstream media and the educational establishment in Scotland seems to be back on familiar ground – the lack of readiness of secondary teachers to ‘deliver’ the new National Qualifications to school leavers (STV News). It is an all-too-familiar scenario, and the language of ‘delivery’ tells you all you need to know about our continuing collective failure to turn the system around. I thought this recent tweet from one of the country’s top educational commentators summed it up rather neatly:

The Scottish Government claims to be fully committed to the vision of Curriculum for Excellence, yet sometimes I wonder if our politicians and their representatives in Education Scotland send out confusing signals  about what was designed to be a ‘seamless’ educational experience for young people between the ages of three and eighteen. Terms like ‘senior phase’ are used to justify the fact that, by the middle years of secondary school, and earlier in some instances, the development of the four capacities appears still to  give way  to relentless exam preparation. If the development of the four capacities in our young people really IS what we believe the purpose of formal education should be about – and the general agreement on that over the past twenty years or so seems to be holding firm – then we need to have the courage of our convictions and look at what is preventing that from happening. Shouldn’t we be spending more time and energy, for example, looking at how we measure that development? Technology has provided us with tools which make it easier for learners to record and demonstrate their own personal development – why aren’t we making more use of them and transferring that responsibility to the learner more effectively? 

“Our approach to the curriculum sees it as a single framework for development and learning from 3 t0 18. The framework needs to allow different routes for progression from one stage of learning to the next, and promote learning across a wide range of contexts and experiences. It should equip young people with high levels of literacy, numeracy and thinking skills and support the development of their health and wellbeing. It should enable every child to develop his or her full potential through a broad range of challenging, well-planned experiences which help them develop qualities of citizenship, enterprise and creativity…As many schools recognise, the curriculum is more than curriculum areas and subjects: it is the totality of experiences which are planned for young people through their education – a canvas upon which their learning experiences are formed.”

A Curriculum for Excellence, Progress and Proposals, Looking at the Curriculum Differently. March 2006

Discussing this issue on last week’s Inside Learning podcast, I repeated my long-held belief that the brakes were put on the new curriculum almost from the start, when it became clear that secondary schools would be ILexpected to implement significant changes within their existing structures, when in fact it is the very structures themselves which should have been up for discussion, a point taken up by Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University in two recent blogposts on the same topic.

“I wish to dwell briefly here on issues of provision. Addressing questions of fitness-for-purpose should also be about looking at systems and procedures, thus identifying barriers and drivers which impact upon the development of the curriculum. A prominent example of where this has not tended to happen concerns the secondary school timetable. Logic would suggest that a serious attempt to implement the principles of CfE would include a serious look at the structure of the school day. One might expect longer school periods for example, to accommodate CfE pedagogy. One might expect a serious look at the ways in which knowledge is organised in schools.  Disciplines and subjects are not the same thing, and schools should be looking at alternative ways to organise disciplinary (and everyday) knowledge, especially in the pre-qualification Broad General Education phase, where fragmentation is a problem (typically S1 pupils might see 15 teachers in a week). As Elliot Eisner (2005) reminds us, ‘There is no occupation …  in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program‘. Serious attention to such matters might include the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches, including hybrid subjects (integrated science, social studies, etc.).”

Mark Priestley, Professor of Education, Stirling University

While I agree wholeheartedly with Mark Priestley’s observations, I don’t think ‘the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches’ goes far enough; many schools claim to be doing this already, and the evidence of impact is so far hard to find. For me, the problem is caused by having a ‘Broad General Education’ for three years of secondary schooling before reverting in the senior phase to the exam-driven scenario we are all too familiar with. Shouldn’t the whole of schooling be a ‘BROAD, GENERAL, EDUCATION’? As I said earlier, I think the crucial decisions were made with the publication of the Progress and Proposals document in 2006, which made it clear that the structures in secondary schools would remain largely unchanged. This was what launched the next phase of development, when outcomes and experiences were written by ‘subject-based’ groups of specialists. A much more productive next phase, in my view, would have been to tease out the ‘attributes’ and ‘capabilities’ of the four capacities (featured below) into a larger curriculum framework.

It could have been different, and it is never too late. If we are to make real progress in Scotland and re-establish our reputation for a world-class education system, we need to grasp the nettle, admit that our natural conservatism has not brought about the systemic changes we were looking for, and go back to the drawing board. This would be less an admission of failure than a further declaration that we do indeed have the courage of our convictions.

Whether you are working at school, departmental, local authority or national level, and wondering how you might re-boot the curriculum, looking again in some detail at the four capacities would not be a bad place to start.

capacitiesdiagram1_tcm4-392948 (1)

The four ‘capacities’ of the Scottish curriculum.

Footnote: The day after I published this blogpost, I was alerted to the publication of ‘A Common Weal Education‘ from the Jimmy Reid Foundation. I had no idea that it was being written, but an added bonus is that it was written by Brian Boyd, Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University and one of the most positive influences on Scottish Education over the past two decades. If you have any interest in the future of education in Scotland – or anywhere else for that matter – I could not recommend this report highly enough.


17 thoughts on “It Should Have Been Messier

  1. Here here! How can we move this agenda forward? Is it the old curmudgeons at SQA? Why are we so afraid to go all the way?

    • Hi Fiona,
      It is difficult to imagine that there will be another nationwide review any time soon, so it may be that it will be down to a few brave individuals or clusters of schools with the vision to create a radically different model. It would be easy to ‘blame’ SQA, but in fact they are doing what they do (and they do it well). I’m sure they would argue that they are providing a huge range of courses and awards which should allow centres to custom-build their curriculum. I would argue that is isn’t possible to create paper-and-pencil tests which reflect the development of the four capacities.
      In terms of your last question, I suspect that not enough people in positions of power are actually committed to CfE, even, I’m afraid, some of those who say they are.

  2. Timely and bold post Bill. From the outset, any curriculum designed within the perimeters of current structures is compromised. A lot of momentum and a variety of voices will be needed to re look at CfE from 3-18.

    • Hi Jay,
      As I replied to Fiona’s comment, I doubt whether there is a will for another national review at this point, or indeed whether there is a feeling in government that another review is necessary. I think there was a genuine feeling that the system we had was generally fine, and that tweaking it would be enough. I don’t subscribe to that point of view.

  3. Hi Bill.

    As I said on Twitter, I agree with the point regarding secondary structures, but disagree with the notion that “all education should be ‘BROAD, GENERAL, EDUCATION'”.

    The fact that a very good, very big idea is being throttled by the stubborn refusal of secondary education to adapt is fairly obvious, and unless that particular is addressed than there is only so much progress that can be made. That said, I do believe firmly in the idea of gradual specialisation throughout education, and think that it would be terribly unfair to deny this to teenagers – consequently, some ‘compartmentalisation’ of education is clearly required in secondary school, and merging the two competing pressures is, as we all know, extremely difficult (perhaps even impossible).

    I should probably also point out that I don’t really have much faith in the ‘four capacities’ is a panacea to our education issues (although that is more to do with the language used – which is vacuous – than the overall philosophy).

    I think that there is one big thing that is too often ignored: regardless of all the romantic language about ‘inspiring a life-long love of learning’ education is about preparing our pupils for the world beyond our own institutions (whether they be primary schools, secondary, colleges or universities); rightly or wrongly this means that secondary schools will always be judged on where the pupils go next (a pressure that doesn’t affect primary schools because there is no variation in ‘leaver destinations’) and, for academically able pupils, that invariably means exam results. Yes, we need to do much more than just drill pupils through grey, soulless exam factories, and the sort of skills that lie behind the ‘four capacities’ ideas are absolutely crucial, but they are of far more value incorporated into education than actually driving it.

    • Hi James,
      Thanks for taking the trouble. You make some extremely relevant points, so I’ll try to respond to them individually. I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate, but you have misquoted my statement about a broad, general education. What I actually said was, ‘shouldn’t the whole of SCHOOLING be a broad, general education’, rather than ‘all education’. This is important, because, as we all know, education and schooling are not necessarily the same thing, and of course education continues way beyond school (I’ll resist the temptation to repeat Mark Twain’s famous quote at this point!). We could discuss at length how to define what a ‘gradual specialisation’ entails, and in fact that debate would have been a very worthwhile part of the review process – it didn’t take place.

      As for the four capacities, I’m not sure that they, in themselves, were seen to be a ‘panacea’, and I wouldn’t make such a claim for them, but rather they were a statement of the general purpose of the formal curriculum. They may well be ‘vacuous’, but my argument was that they haven’t yet been thoroughly enough defined. For example, I think it is right and proper that we should be trying to develop ‘effective contributors’ who are ‘able to communicate in different ways and in different setting’, but we need to try to come to a common understanding of what these ‘ways’ and ‘settings’ are, otherwise the statement remains, if not vacuous, then certainly vague.

      It is in your last paragraph that I think there is most divergence in our views. I firmly believe that the development of the four capacities should be driving the education system, rather than ‘incorporated into it’, because otherwise, what is ‘it’? I’m not convinced that schools are in fact judged to any great extent on where their pupils ‘go next’, nor in fact that they should be. I do believe that those institutions where they do go next should have a greater responsibility for the training and skills required for their own particular purposes, since it has been shown time and again that exam results alone are not a great indicator of suitability for any particular course or career choice. Which brings me right back to my belief that schooling should be about providing opportunities and encouragement for young people to develop in the most general sense. I should add, that I am not arguing here for a ‘knowledge-free’ curriculum here, because I think the debate about essential knowledge is a different discussion, but that as an old romantic, I absolutely do believe in the concept of lifelong learning.


      • Thanks for the reply Bill,

        I completely agree that exam results are not a good measure of what pupils are capable of (but then again I’m pretty radically opposed to the current system of examination) but I don’t think it’s realistic to argue that we as secondary teachers aren’t responsible for preparing pupils for their next step beyond our institution (whether that be academic or not).

        The idea behind each of the four capacities are absolutely correct, and if they form part of a wider picture where we provide our pupils with the skills, experiences and knowledge required to thrive beyond the walls of a secondary school, then I’m all for them – I am, however, very reluctant to have the entirety of education experience effectively dictated by those same ideas.

        The irony is that I strongly believe that the only way to properly incorporate the four capacities is to commit to, and achieve, the process of gradual specialisation that I value so highly.

      • I don’t think we’re all that far apart, actually! As you said in your earlier response, the competing pressures in secondary schools are extremely difficult to accommodate, and may well prove to be impossible.

  4. Great article Bill and speaking as one of Fiona’s old curmudgeons I would say that SQA does what it is asked/told. I know for a fact that SQA proposed a much more radical approach to the whole issue of qualifications, including ongoing assessment using e-portfolios, but that this was knocked back. In any case, as you rightly say, unless we change the whole structure and culture of post-12 education, tinkering with exams will change nothing.

  5. Hello Bill,
    If you will permit a small voice of optimism- ten years on and it is time to come back to the 4 capacities and dig deeper. Understanding has moved on from the 4 capacities displays on the wall and children with ‘I’m a Successful Learner’ pinned to their chests for getting their sums right. We are ready to further develop capabilities and promote attributes within our learning environments through shared understanding and shared ownership of our vision for CfE. Clarity, shared understanding and ownership of the 4 capacities at all levels will lead to our curriculum realising its potential- and how utterly amazing will that be!

    • Hi Kathleen,
      A voice of optimism is always welcome on this blog! I am quite sure things have moved on from the early days of kids reciting the four capacities (and perhaps teachers too), but with little understanding of what they meant. Unfortunately, you don’t say who ‘we’ are, whether that is a school, a cluster or an authority, or indeed whether it refers to the primary or secondary sector, so I am not sure whether it reinforces or undermines my argument.

  6. Hi Bill
    I use ‘we’ to refer to educators- early years, primary, secondary, the local authority and the national voice. The 4 capacities cross sectors and local authorities – they are not hierarchical and so have as much bearing within planning learning experiences as in developing curriculum structures. Apologies for the lack of clarity in my earlier post.

    • Thanks Kathleen. I’m sure all of that is true, up to a point. However, I would still question whether the development of the four capacities, even up to the end of S3, is the focus of attention in most of our secondary schools.

  7. “This was what launched the next phase of development, when outcomes and experiences were written by ‘subject-based’ groups of specialists.”…..however the National Qualifications and New Highers are all underpinned by a skills based curriculum where assessment focus has shifted away from the singular exam and shifted the balance to exam plus Course Assignment. This is a significant shift from the knowledge driven exams of the past. All the Assessment Standards are skills based.
    Ultimately if we have exams and grades that determines what a pupils can choose to do with their life, Secondary teachers will spend the majority of their time ensuring that their pupils do what is needed to get a pass. I know I will!
    The portfolio sounds like a great opportunity for radical change, missed.

    • Hi Krysia,
      Point taken. I would accept that to a great extent the assessment focus has shifted away from the single, end-of-course exam, although this in itself is a contentious issue. I’m sure many teachers would actually prefer if it hadn’t, given the implications for teacher workload. I would also like to see a fuller discussion of the ‘skills’ which are being developed, and how closely they relate to the four capacities – another day perhaps. Of course secondary teachers will focus their attention on making sure their students achieve the best possible grades – that is exactly the point of the blogpost. Unless they are given the ‘green light’ to do things differently – and I’m equally sure many teachers would rather do it differently – the situation is unlikely to change.

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