The Curriculum for Excellence needs to be reset

The Curriculum for Excellence needs to be reset

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Wednesday 31, May, 2017

THE CURRICULUM FOR which was launched in 2004, was heralded as the most fundamental reform of Scottish education for a generation. Rightly, there were high expectations. 

There was near unanimous agreement that its principles were sound; namely, that to educate young people for the 21st century there had to be greater focus on skills and on personal and social responsibility as well as on core knowledge. Young people should understand why they were learning just as much as what they were learning. 

As such, there was widespread support for the four "capacities":

  • Successful Learners
  • Confident Individuals
  • Responsible Citizens
  • Effective Contributors


Support for these principles remains strong – indeed who could argue otherwise – but the educational rationale for the Curriculum for Excellence is totally unclear. Ask teachers and parents to come up with the definition of Curriculum for Excellence and they will struggle to provide the answer. Similarly, its progress has been very hard to measure because there is insufficient relevant data, not helped by the fact that the Scottish Government keeps withdrawing Scotland from key educational surveys.

The result of all this is that the Curriculum for Excellence has come to mean different things to different people. Its structure is not coherent therefore it has confused teachers. The learning “outcomes and experiences” that are intended to shape the curriculum are too vague and there are far too many of them. Mastering core knowledge has, too often, had to give way to learning processes. 

When you talk to parents, many will say "I just hope my child will know enough when they come out of school". For me, as a former teacher, that has been the matter of greatest concern since it implies that there isn't sufficient trust in the Curriculum for Excellence. At the same time, we know that Scotland is badly slipping behind in literacy and numeracy. Whether it's the surveys conducted by PISA, SSLN or the Sutton Trust, Scotland's education performance is shown to be well below par.

Like other colleagues in the last few months, l have sat through many education committee meetings at Holyrood, carefully ploughing through the very substantial evidence about the Curriculum for Excellence that has been presented by teachers, parents, employers and our educational agencies. I have come to the following  conclusions:

1. Firstly, the Curriculum for Excellence needs to be reset so that its purpose is very clear and easily understood. Parents, teachers and young people need to know exactly what the Curriculum for Excellence is expected to deliver at the key stages in a young person's educational career, both in terms of core knowledge and key skills. There must be no scope for ambiguity or misinterpretation. Parents should have access to straightforward, comprehensible information about what their children should be learning at each stage.

2. Literacy and numeracy were supposed to be embedded in the core of the Curriculum for Excellence. In practice, it has been a completely different story as teachers have been forced to concentrate on other things thanks to a whole range of diktats from the education agencies. We have also discovered that there is not sufficient focus on literacy and numeracy in teacher training which begs the question how on earth can we expect our young people to do well if many of our teachers do not feel they are being properly trained? These issues must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The Scottish Conservatives strongly support national standardised testing in literacy and numeracy but we believe much more can be done to improve the teaching of literacy and numeracy in our schools and yes, that means going back to basics with teaching methods that produced the previous high standards of which Scotland was rightly proud.

3. Likewise, within the broad general education years (where Scotland used to excel) there has not been nearly enough focus on traditional subjects and on the necessary core knowledge which defines them. That needs to change, and the qualification system, which has encountered so many problems at National 4 and 5 level, needs to reflect the learning of this core knowledge. If we do not make these changes we will continue to see adverse consequences such as the narrowing of subject choice and the resulting issues about college and university entrance. Naturally, these are big concerns for parents as they see their children progress through school and start to make their early career choices.

4. Throughout all the evidence we heard, there was one constant complaint – namely that there was very little accountability within the delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence. Teachers complained they were not listened to and felt they had little ownership of curriculum design. That too needs to change – so too does the ludicrous situation whereby the main agency Education Scotland is in charge of both curriculum development and its inspection. 

The Scottish Government has been quick to remind us that, in its recent review of Scottish schools, the OECD applauded Scotland for having the foresight to put in place such an ambitious reform as the Curriculum for Excellence. That’s true, but the OECD also made clear that there was a long way to go before Scotland could live up to its full potential and realise excellence and equity right across the country.

Scotland was once world-leading when it came to education. After 10 years of an SNP government, we are now going backwards in international rankings, our attainment gap remains stubbornly wide and our pupils’ performance in literacy and numeracy is worsening.

The Scottish Conservatives believe we owe it to every parent, teacher and young person to deliver that excellence and equity. Simply hoping things will improve is not an option.

Liz Smith MSP is the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Shadow Education Secretary 

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