CfE post-OECD: Time for a simplified curriculum

Written by Professor Mark Priestley on 21 April 2016 in Comment

Professor Mark Priestley says the recommendations of the OECD should point to a new and simplified curriculum

Is it time for a rethink of Curriculum for Excellence? A good question, and the answer is yes – up to a point.

I concur here with the recent OECD review of the curriculum that, while agreeing with the general principles and direction of CfE, also suggested that implementation of the curriculum has been incomplete.

The review pointed to a number of areas where continued progress is needed, including three key recommendations. First, it referred to creating a ‘new narrative for CfE’ – simplified guidance, and a more coherent pathway from policy to practice. Second, it called for a strengthening of ‘the middle’; bodies such as local authorities, which need to develop greater curriculum development capacity. Third, it called for greater engagement with the core principles of the curriculum by schools. 


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So what might a rethink look like? I offer some suggestions here, broadly covering the three OECD recommendations outlined above.

- There should be immediate action by the government and other stakeholders to create a new and simplified narrative for CfE, while maintaining the core principles. This would inevitably involve rewriting or even replacing many key policy documents; and I would welcome the abolition of the Experiences and Outcomes here, as they encourage an audit approach to curriculum development.

It should also involve consideration of two further issues: 1) the development of clear processes for curriculum development, to be followed by schools and local authorities; and 2) the identification of tensions within the system that can create perverse incentives for schools, and which have led to the growth of bureaucracy and pressures to teach to the test. Arguably, it has been the lack of the former and a proliferation of the latter that have brought us to the current situation of incomplete implementation.

- Scotland needs to develop a strengthened curriculum support infrastructure. This is ‘the middle’ referred to by the OECD. It does not matter whether this is done nationally (through Education Scotland) or regionally (through local authorities or regional consortia of schools as is the case in Wales).

A key point here is about function; as well as building capacity, the bodies that form ‘the middle’ should refocus their work, moving away from the current emphasis on quality control, inspection and the production of additional guidance, and towards more hands-on leadership of curriculum development in schools. Such a role is fundamentally about facilitating the translation of policy into practice.

- A rethink should involve the development of new ways of reading the curriculum, or in other words, new ways of understanding what is meant by the term curriculum. We need to move away from a traditional view of the curriculum as a set of instructions that can be followed to the letter. Instead, the high level CfE policy needs to be seen as a set of guiding principles – purposes of educational – that should help schools to develop high quality educational practices.

As the OECD points out, these building blocks are there already; the task of schools is to engage directly with those core guiding principles, as they develop fit-for-purpose practices.

A couple of final points. First, let’s stop calling it Curriculum for Excellence, as also suggested by the OECD – the Scottish Curriculum sounds pretty good to me. Second, all of the above will require both clarity of purpose and boldness from those with the expertise and influence to redevelop CfE; as the OECD stated, “this is a prime opportunity boldly to enter a new phase, building upon the achievement to date".

Professor Mark Priestley is Deputy Head of the School of Social Sciences at Stirling University






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