Whatever happened to CfE's 'bold new phase'?

Written by Tom Freeman on 27 February 2017 in Comment

Whether a rapid pace of change in Scottish education will reboot Curriculum for Excellence remains to be seen

Test - credit Eric E Castro 

While strengthening the ‘middle’ of Scotland’s education system formed a major part of the OECD recommendations and led to a review of the structure of governance of schools, delivery of the curriculum remains the main focus for those on the front line. 

Curriculum for Excellence was at a “watershed moment” a year ago, according to the OECD, which called for a “new narrative” and a “bold new phase”.

Whether we have seen this bold new phase begin in the last year is questionable.


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Yes, there has been a rapid pace of change, including the introduction of a National Improvement Framework, new guidance for teachers, standardised assessments and a major review of school governance. 

The Scottish Attainment Challenge, too, has begun to fund initiatives in areas selected by their deprivation. Now, the pupil equity fund will go directly to headteachers.

But what any of these things mean for CfE on a practical level remains to be seen.

One of the issues which has dogged the implementation of CfE, particularly as the senior phase has been rolled out, seems to be about communication. 

Teachers were “supported” by guidance from Education Scotland which grew to be around 20,000 pages long, while the Scottish Qualifications Agency was accused of errors in exam papers and creating extra workload.

Last summer Education Secretary John Swinney described the 20,000 pages of guidance as a “mystery tour” and replaced them with a slimmed down version.

After some terse evidence sessions, the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee said the two bodies needed to rebuild their relationship with teachers.

Indeed, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), told the committee progress had only been achieved “as a consequence of direct interaction” with ministers. 

“Putting something on a website is not the same as effective communication,” he said.

“The biggest gap that has developed is the gap between decisions being made at a national level and information being published – being made available on a website – and schools and teachers finding the time to engage with that information and put it into effective practice.”

If teachers cannot engage with the message, then the content of the message, whatever that might be, loses relevance. 

Education Scotland chief Bill Maxwell  recognised that the system has not yet fully exploited the notion of a three-year broad general education with pupils making subject choices later and with an option to ‘bypass’ exams in S4.

“The management board has wrestled with the dilemma throughout the process, but we have held to the principle that, fundamentally, we need schools designing curriculums that meet the needs of their students locally and which take full advantage of the freedoms of Curriculum for Excellence,” he said.

The CfE management board itself will need to change, according to Flanagan.

“We will achieve improvements in our schools by moving away from an obsession with qualifications and towards looking at pedagogy and teaching practice,” he said.

But if schools feel empowered to design their own curriculums, how will they take on new standardised assessments of all pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S3? After all, it is the Scottish Government who wants the data. 

Comparisons with England are common in Scottish political discourse, particularly in education, and while the Scottish Government has insisted there will be no English-style academies, league tables or grammars, discussions about school autonomy and standardised tests have led to accusations of the opposite.  

Indeed, in a column in The Times recently, Michael Gove said: “The SNP has tacitly acknowledged its failure by… implementing changes that borrow from Conservative reforms in England.” 

Given how those particular reforms have been received, Scottish teachers may feel as confused as ever. 

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