The Curriculum for
Excellence that just
has to pass
The latest exchanges between policy-makers and teachers on the state of readiness of schools for the full implementation of Curriculum for Excellence suggests that the attempt to manage the reform in an inclusive and participatory way has had limited success.
An audit of schools carried out by Education Scotland, the national body which, in partnership with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, is responsible for ensuring the success of the programme, concluded that only 30 subject departments (out of 367 secondary schools) had expressed concerns about their ability to proceed on schedule. Teachers' unions have questioned the validity of the audit on the grounds that, in a number of local authorities, responses were sought not from classroom teachers but from head teachers and council officials, who were, it was alleged, disposed to take a favourable view.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest teachers' organisation, said: 'The audit has been a shallow exercise which barely skimmed the surface of the discontent felt in many schools'. It has even been suggested that teachers have been under pressure to state that everything is moving ahead smoothly. Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, has claimed that 'any individual brave enough to stick his or her head above the parapet and admit to not being ready to implement these courses is subjected to an interrogation worthy of a police state'.
Both Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, and Bill Maxwell, chief executive of Education Scotland, were quick to counter these allegations, asserting that the audit was just one part of a wider monitoring process and that good progress towards implementation was being made.
Curriculum for Excellence has been on the agenda since 2004 when the original policy document was produced by a review group set up by the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. The broad principles set out in the 2004 report – encapsulated in four 'capacities' which all youngsters are expected to acquire (becoming successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens) – received widespread endorsement. Subsequent development of the programme was, however, beset with difficulties. There was a lack of clarity about whether the reform aimed for 'transformational change' or simply an extension of existing 'best practice'. When the key document setting out the 'experiences and outcomes' which defined the new curriculum was produced in 2009, it was criticised as being too vague. The expectation that teachers would become curriculum developers, taking more responsibility for the form and content of learning in their own classrooms, required a major change of mindset from the previous 'top down' regime, which had preferred compliance to independent thinking.
The decision to use the word 'excellence' in the title can be seen either as a worthy aspiration or as an example of ill-judged boastfulness, a form of pride which may precede a fall.
One former secondary head teacher, writing in 2011, referred to the 'problematic' nature of the development, citing poor management of the initiative and poor communication with the teaching profession. She also stated that much of Curriculum for Excellence 'runs counter to teachers' experience, training and intuition' and questioned whether there was a ‘solid evidential and intellectual basis’ for the reform programme.
More recently there has been a rather clumsy attempt to discredit the findings of a research project carried out by staff at Stirling University. The project drew attention to a number of positive features of what was happening but it also suggested that there was a disturbing gap between policy intentions and the requirements of successful implementation. In particular, there had been limited effectiveness in mobilising the expertise and professionalism of teachers, deriving partly from limitations in the curriculum model and partly from a weak understanding of the processes of educational change.
Instead of acknowledging that the research contained some encouraging features and that a mixed picture was only to be expected at this stage of implementation, the government reaction was to try to present the study as out-of-date and unrepresentative of the country as a whole. When the researchers responded robustly in defence of their report the result was that the episode received much more media attention that it might otherwise have had.
Curriculum for Excellence has become a 'high stakes' policy in the sense that it has reached the stage where many political and professional reputations – and indeed the reputation of Scottish education as a whole – depend(s) on it being perceived as reasonably successful. This arises partly from the scope and ambition of the project, indicated by its application to the full age range 3-18, as well as by the pervasive discourse of 'excellence'. The decision to use the word 'excellence' in the title can be seen either as a worthy aspiration or as an example of ill-judged boastfulness, a form of pride which may precede a fall.
Moreover, the way in which the programme has been promoted qualifies it to be considered as an instance of what the American political theorist Murray Edelman has called 'policy as spectacle', in which presentation is as important as substance. Politicians and officials now have no alternative but to press on and hope that teachers will, despite their reservations, do their very best to make the new system work in the interests of their pupils. Those same politicians and officials, a few years down the line, will want to claim credit for their role in the process.
However, it is a pity that no properly independent research has yet been commissioned to undertake a systematic evaluation of the reform. It will not be good enough if, as has happened in the past, an 'insider' evaluation, carried out by some of those responsible for developing the programme (such as the inspectorate), will be the only source of 'evidence' about whether Scottish education is better, worse, or much the same as a result of all the time and effort that has been devoted to Curriculum for Excellence.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling