The Point
Last updated: 14 June 2018. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Curriculum for Excellence: a critique

Begun under Labour, continued under the SNP,the Curriculum for Excellence CfE) – spun as a radical and progressive reform – continues to cause massive concern amongst teachers and parents. Teacher Liz Walker has offered to try and get her head around it for The Point in an updated article first published by Democratic Green Socialist

1. What is CfE?

In the beginning was the plan.

And then came the assumptions.

And the assumptions were without form

And the plan was without substance.

And the darkness was upon the face of the teachers and they spoke amongst themselves, saying "it's a crock of sh*t, and it stinks."

And the teachers went unto their principal teachers, saying "It is a pail of dung and none may abide the odour thereof."

And the principal teachers went unto their head teachers, saying "It is a container of excrement and it is very strong such as none may abide by it."

And the head teachers went unto their directors, saying "It is a vessel of fertiliser and none may abide its strength."

And the directors went unto the councillors, saying "It contains that which helps plant growth and is very strong."

And the councillors went unto the Cabinet Secretary, saying "it promotes growth and is very powerful."

And the Cabinet Secretary went unto the government, saying "This new plan will actively promote growth and the efficiency of this country and these areas in particular.

And the Government looked upon the plan and saw that it was good – and the plan became Policy.

And this is how CfE happened

- Viral e-mail commonly circulated amongst teachers

"We are changing direction away from the misguided view that teachers are there to impart knowledge, towards a model where the outcomes and experiences focus on how our young people are learning."

- Primary Head Anne Moore, General Teaching Council Magazine

(NB : All Quotations below in bold are comments taken from the recent EIS survey about CfE implementation and workload issues.)

Against a backdrop of pay freezes, changes to pensions which will make us pay more, work longer and get less, cut backs in staffing and in school budgets teachers are expected to cheerfully implement the Curriculum For Excellence [ CfE ].

So what is it and what are its implications for Scottish school pupils and teachers?

I've been a teacher for many years and I work in a medium sized secondary in the Highlands. Along with every other teacher in Scotland I received a big, shiny doorstopper of a green folder, which weighs about three kilos, contains 1 A2 and 10 A1 sized shiny colour posters, and lays out in glorious detail the outcomes and experiences to be delivered by CfE for every level, from early to fourth level, in every subject.

(How much this cost I shudder to think, and I would question that every single teacher needed one. Surely one per department or even per school would have been sufficient).

I have also been overjoyed to receive various other documents such as 'Building the Curriculum 5 – a framework for assessment' and 'Quality assurance and Moderation'.

I have attended in service CfE days and discussed the implications of CfE with colleagues in my department and others in other subjects. So surely with all that I should be an expert, and every teacher in primary and secondary schools across Scotland should be jumping up and down in eager anticipation, doing a Wendy Alexander and shouting 'bring it on!'

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead for many teachers there is uncertainty, confusion and apprehension.

The EIS (Educational Institute for Scotland – Teacher's Union) argued for a year's delay in implementation so that teachers could prepare for the changes – a request rebuffed by Mike Russell, the Education Secretary.

In a survey by the SSTA (Scottish Secondary Teachers Association) 79% of teachers who responded disagreed that the outcomes and experiences set out in the new Curriculum were adequate.

88% said that they required additional resources to implement CfE.

90% said that the main problem lay in the lack of assessment materials.

79% said they had not been adequately consulted on timetabling and curriculum models.

67% said that their school's curriculum model either enjoyed nil support from them or only a small amount of support.

And 73% agreed that communications from local authorities, LTS (learning and teaching, Scotland), SQA etc have been neither effective nor supportive.

The President of the SSTA at the SSTA Annual Congress in May 2010 said "We know why secondary teachers are not fully behind CfE. It's because much of it is mince."

Surely in the intervening two years these issues have been resolved?

Sadly no, and in fact some other issues have appeared to perplex the nation's teachers and parents.

Recently an online survey was carried out by the EIS to which 2,700 from a random sample of 10,000 EIS members in the secondary sector responded.

Here are some key findings:

Over 90%of respondents feel that the senior phase ( years 4 – 6 )implementation of CFE has increased their workload over the past year.

Almost 80% feel that their workload increase has been "very high " or "high"

Well over 90% of respondents believe that additional resources will be required to implement the senior phase of CfE in their school.

More than 85% of respondents believe that more additional in-service training will be required to support CfE senior phase implementation.

Only 3% of respondents are "fully confident " that their department will be able to deliver the new qualifications from next year, and less than 5% are "very confident ".

By contrast , over 70% of respondents are "barely confident " or "not confident at all of their department's readiness to deliver the new qualifications on the current timescale.

Teachers also displayed very high levels of dissatisfaction regarding the level of information / support provided to support their work in developing CfE senior phase.

Over 80% of respondents rated Scottish Government support as "unsatisfactory "

EIS Education Convener and General Secretary (then designate) Larry Flanagan , said,

"The overwhelming message from Scotland's secondary teachers is that currently they do not feel confident regarding their school's state of readiness to deliver the senior phase of CfE , particularly the new National qualifications, on the current timetable. "

In March the Education Secretary , Mike Russell ,announced a package of support for teachers to ensure that CFE remains 'on track '.

This includes:

Additional funding of £3.5 million for secondary schools for additional training and support materials where these are required.

Two extra in-service days for secondary schools to allow teachers additional time to prepare for new qualifications.

An expanded programme of SQA events for every principal subject teacher.

Education Scotland will work with teachers to tailor their teaching to the needs of their pupils while also developing course materials for the National 4 and 5 qualifications which will be distributed to schools.

These materials will be for every subject and will be distributed to schools in advance of the commencement of the new qualifications in 2013/14.This is aimed primarily at reducing the workload implications of schools having to prepare new coursework materials.

This sounds all very fine and well but it seems a bit of a belated response to the very real concerns that teachers have been expressing for a long time.

There is now apparently an option for some schools to delay the introduction of the new exams for a year if departments or schools feel they are not sufficiently on track. This is a decision which East Renfrewshire took unilaterally much to the bemusement of the rest of the country 's teachers who had been told that this was not possible. However I believe that the likelihood of individual departments or whole schools putting their heads above the parapet and admitting that they are not coping is very low.

Moreover Mike Russell has stated that he did not think there was a need for any school to delay implementing the exams.

He said: "Every single director of education has made it clear there will be no such delays."(apart from East Renfrewshire of course).

It will take very brave individual teachers and departments to stand up to their senior management and directors of education and tell them that they are unsure of or not prepared for the new exams.

"Mr Russell needs to take the concerns of teachers seriously. Many Directors of Education may genuinely believe they are well placed to deliver the new qualifications because head teachers tell them that is the case. Head teachers either don't know or won't admit that they really don't know if their school is or is not."


As far as I'm aware curriculum means a course of study over a variety of subjects, and for most people this is understood as a national curriculum which children in Primary and up to the end of the second year/ third year in Secondary will all follow, at which point they will choose options .

CfE changes this. Subjects will still be taught in that, of course, there will still be English, Maths, Science etc and the core content will, as far as I'm aware, remain the same.

However the CfE is not a national curriculum to the end of S2/S3. It's not even a regional curriculum. It is, in fact, a school to school make it up as you go along curriculum.

This first rears its ugly head in primary schools in coverage of 'specialist' subjects such as Art and Design, Languages, Music and Drama. Due to financial pressures, primaries are making choices of what they can cover in those areas. I am an Art and Design teacher and I can report that coverage of my subject is patchy to say the least. Quite a lot of students coming into S1 have had no specialist art teaching since Primary 4.

Things get even murkier as children move on to S1 and S2. Each individual school decides on the curriculum so there is no consistency across the local authority area, let alone nationally.

As I understand it one of the big ideas of CfE is a Broad General Education ( BGE) meaning that pupils would experience the whole range of subjects as they're supposed to do in S1 and S2 right through to the end of S3 at which point they would choose their options for S4 and be tracked into either National 4 or National 5.

However, increasingly in schools, constraints on staffing and budgets have led to some departments being forced to choose between teaching either S1 or S2.

Even more confusing is the complete lack of consistency across regions or across the country of the adoption of the BGE 3 ( junior phase ) - 3 ( senior phase ) model.

My own school and many others across the Highland region are ignoring it and sticking to a 2 ( S1/S2 ) – 2 ( S3 / S4 ) -2( S5/S6) traditional model.

This means, of course, that our S3s who have started the new session have already begun the course that will lead to National 4/ 5 and any new coursework materials which arrive in 2013 may lead to changes of emphasis.

However it could cause more problems for children moving from school to school within the country or even within a region.

For instance a child who has been doing a subject in S1 or S2 may find a different curricular model at a different school which makes certain subjects unavailable and if a child moves from a school which has followed a 3-3 model to a 2-2-2 school at the end of third year they will find that the 2-2-2 pupils will have spent more time on the subjects they have opted for.

" We have worked very hard to embrace the principles set out in all BTC (Building the Curriculum ) documents. We are committed to delivering. However, there are some contradictions. We are offering more choice and more service in the shape of support whilst at the same time having our conditions and pay reduced in real terms. The idea behind CfE feels like an idea born out of a service with money and time , but it has to live in a world with a diminishing well of both. There is some headache and challenge ahead.

The differing systems of 2-2-2 and 3-3 means this system is not equitable across regions. We can now add to that different regions starting at different times. Another year's delay and some decisive planning seems to be the only way to salvage what is fast becoming a burden rather than the saviour of Scottish education."

"...information is coming to us too late for planning. Teachers do not really understand the curricular frameworks. Schools are not confident about taking forward their own models when they hear the school up the road is doing something different. There is no time to evaluate courses already implemented. We are in year 2 of CfE in secondary and I find it hard to see how schools can abandon CfE in favour of existing courses. There is reassurance from HE and FE as to how they view the new qualifications but that is well-nigh impossible as the drafts are only just out. That is the real issue. Also HMIE are suggesting that all of the experiences and outcomes need to be covered and there is little time available in schools to discuss all of this."

Cross-curricular activities

This ad hoc school to school approach becomes even more confusing when cross curricular activities are considered.

I think it has always been the case that good teachers will quite naturally reference other disciplines or draw in information from other areas to enliven and inform their own subject. In my department we do this all the time. For example, in S1, as part of their course, the pupils design and make a poster for a local Pictish museum – along the way learning about Pictish art and the book of Kells. This, as it happens, ties in with a unit of work the History department does about that period of Scotland's history.

However, the CfE insists that cross curricular activity is actively shoe-horned into a school's curriculum – regardless of cost or relevance. Suggestions as to how this is concretely done are left to each individual school and consequently vary enormously.

An example might be a school devoting a week or a month for the whole of S1 and/or S2 to work on a theme. So if the theme was 'Russia', then History could do the revolution, English a Russian author, Home economics could get a samovar going etc. Another example might be different departments linking up to work on a project.

My main problem with this is that every single school would be doing different things, and not only school to school but year to year as teachers left or enthusiasm waxed and waned. Learning becomes ephemeral rather than systematic, with false weight attached to particular elements of a subject in order to meet the requirements of the cross-curricular Big Idea.

One of the main planks of CfE is literacy and numeracy across the curriculum. This has gone through various manifestations from the idea that pupils make a folio of examples of their work in these areas from each subject to teachers reporting on what each child has done. As far as I can tell no firm decision has been made on this.

The discussions about numeracy across the curriculum in my school ( I have no idea what other schools in the region or in the country are doing ) have led to each subject having to identify when instances of using numeracy happens in their courses and the particular outcomes and experiences which it addresses. These outcomes and experiences must be tackled using the same methods as the maths department and cannot occur in another subject until it has been covered by the maths department in their course.

For example in S2 in Art and Design ,as part of the course, we design and make a gift box based on beetles and insects hypothetically for sale in the Natural History Museum in London. The children use a template and draw a net of a box which they fold and put together. As drawing a net of a box is also part of the second year Maths syllabus I will now , in theory , have to ensure that the children have covered this in Maths before I do and that I teach them to do it in the same way.

There was a proposal some time ago that pupils would sit some kind of literacy and numeracy test but I've no idea what happened to this. At one point it was suggested that this would happen in S4 – which always seemed a bit daft as by then it would be too late to do any remedial work that was required.

"Farcical. CfE is an excellent idea unbelievably badly implemented. Schools scared to hold their hands up and say they're not ready. Immeasurably glad I don't have a 12/ 13 year old who is going to be a guinea pig for National 4/5."

3. Levels, outcomes and experiences

If you are as yet uninitiated, let me introduce you to the mantra of CfE, which is called the four capacities.

Children should be:

Successful Learners
Confident Individuals
Responsible Citizens
Effective Contributors.

Sounds great – or does it? On closer inspection these phrases appear to be so general as to be almost meaningless. But if that seems vague look at the definitions of levels. This is a quote from my shiny green folder.

"The statements of the experiences and outcomes themselves describe national expectations of learning and progression from the early years to the end of S3. They do not have ceilings, to enable staff to extend the development of skills, attributes, knowledge and understanding into more challenging areas and higher level of performance. The experiences and outcomes are set out in lines of development which describe progress in learning. Progression is indicated through curriculum levels, which are explained in the table below."

Level and Stage

Early pre-school years and P1 or later for some
First to the end of P4 or later for some
Second to the end of P7 but later or earlier for some
Third S1 to S3, but earlier for some.

Senior phase S4 to S6 and college or other means of study

Examination phase from s4 – s6
National 4
National 5
Advanced Higher

As I understand this, in the senior phase , it means that National 4 is roughly on a par with the present Intermediate 1 or Standard grade Foundation/ General level and National 5 is deemed to be pretty much the same as Intermediate 2 or Credit level at Standard grade. Assessment of National 4, however, is to be conducted internally and although National 5 is to be assessed externally ( as at present in Intermediates and Standard Grades ) for" the foreseeable future "no-one is quite sure how long the " foreseeable future " is.

Higher appears , as far as anyone can tell at present, to be staying pretty much the same as it will continue to be externally examined and will carry the same weight as entrance qualifications for university. However there seem to be two important differences which will be introduced .The first is that pupils will take fewer subjects in order to free up more time to spend in each subject choice and secondly that each subject will cover fewer topics but will explore them in more depth. Unfortunately no one can be entirely sure if this is the case as the tablets haven't come down from the mountain yet

Each of the levels in each subject up to the fourth level are described in a series of statements which are called outcomes and experiences. They are written in the first person and are so vague and open ended that they provide very little that can be pinned down as to what teachers are actually meant to teach and how they are supposed to assess what pupils have absorbed. Here are some examples

"Working on my own and with others, I use my curiousity and imagination to solve design problems." - Art and Design, Early level (pre-school to Primary 1)

"I can use the visual elements and concepts with sensitivity to express qualities and relationships and convey information, thoughts and feelings. I can use my skills and creativity to generate original ideas in my expressive and design work." - Art and Design, Fourth level (S3, earlier or later)

"I can use a variety of methods to solve number problems in familiar contexts, clearly communicating my processes and solutions." - Maths, Third level (S1 – S3)

"I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations, and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response." - English (Reading), Third Level.

All well and good you might say, our children should be able to do such things. However, the wish lists which are the outcomes and experiences remain just that because there is no mention anywhere in the CfE of a syllabus.

A curriculum is composed of the different subjects which are on offer, but a syllabus is what is actually taught within each subject.

The colleagues that I have discussed this with assume that this is because we will stick to the syllabus we already have. Obviously the rules of French grammar or the movement of electrons are not going to change. However, as I've mentioned above,, what appears to be coming through now, as the National Qualifications are under more consideration, is that teachers will be expected to teach less as far as each topic is concerned, but to teach what is taught in more depth. No one has yet specified which parts of the current syllabus should be dropped and which bits retained and deepened. Moreover we keep being told that it has to be exciting and fun, fun, fun!

Most teachers strive to make their subject interesting and relevant for their pupils and try to engage them in the learning process. Quite frankly I find it a bit insulting to teachers (and students) that subjects should be seen as some kind of entertainment. Of course we should try as far as possible to ensure that learning is enjoyable, but it should also be challenging, and quite often, in every discipline, there are bits you just have to get through, to learn and remember. Life's like that. When young people eventually move into the world of work (if there are any jobs for them), or onto college or university, they will find that there bits that can seem a bit boring or repetitive or difficult or frustrating, but they have to be tackled nonetheless.

The University of Stirling study and report which was conducted and written by Dr Mark Priestley and Sarah Minty of the university's School of Education which was published in April of this year found that CfE ,

"does not clearly articulate questions of what should be learned and why".

It also warned against pupils being taught " skills " instead of academic knowledge.

The possibility was also raised that a postcode lottery would exist across the country, with some schools embracing the changes while others merely tweaked the existing curriculum to" tick the box" demanded by the Scottish Executive .

Commenting on the CfE approach ,which places much less emphasis on using traditional academic methods and focuses on teaching pupils life skills, the study suggested that the curriculum's problems were deep seated.

"It does not clearly specify the principles that underlie such an approach, instead talking in vague terms about active learning....Moreover , while it clearly emphasises the importance of learning, and the centrality of the learner , it does not clearly articulate questions of what should be learned and why "

They concluded : "We warn against approaches which downgrade knowledge in favour of skills development."

So are the children presently in S1 /S2 and moving into third year little more than guinea pigs?

" I like the idea of having more say in courses but with little time to develop them means that the quality that should be developed is just not there. Each school tends to do it's own thing even in one authority with a rumbling of working more together coming too little too late. It has been challenging enough to develop the resources for S1 & S2 and as a Science ( Chemistry) teacher we have a great many outcomes to cover but at least we have been able to divide the development work between the teachers in the faculty. In S4 we will be developing Nat 4/5 Chemistry courses and assessment for Nat.4 in their entirety which is totally unrealistic with only 1.5 Chemistry teachers. I have the feeling of being a learner teacher again having to familiarise myself with so much new information."

4. Assessment and reporting

This is the real sticking point. Assessment and reporting are the areas which are giving teachers nightmares.

Take Assessment is for Learning (AIFL). This means self - assessment by the pupils, which along with one to one evaluation with their teacher is supposed to lead to a tailored learning experience for each child. This is fine if a) there was a massive increase in teaching resources and b) if you teach a subject like Art or Music or something like that which is practical and/or creative because one to one evaluation flows naturally from the nature of the subject being taught.

In any subject, any good teacher will strive to match their teaching to specific pupil needs and seek to remedy lack of understanding or spur on and develop pupils with particular ability. But individual tailored learning – while a great political sound bite – is not so easily done on a lesson to lesson basis in many subjects. Moreover, as CfE pushes teachers in the direction of doing group work a lot more it can become well-nigh impossible.

As every teacher knows, in the dynamics of group work a couple of able children tend to take over and perform the tasks while the less able can hide behind the others and have only peripheral involvement.

Self- assessment, moreover, is to become an integral part of reporting. This means that pupils may have to write a comment on their progress in each subject which will be included in the reports which are sent to their parents/carers. This might allow child to reflect on what they think they have learned or achieved in each subject but it could also be completely frivolous or even damaging in the long run.

For instance, some children who are very able will quite often report that they haven't done very well because they are highly self -critical, while others who are not aware of their limitations can assess themselves as having done extremely well in a subject. Pupils' comments are unlikely to bear any relation to the objective standard expected in any given subject at any given stage.

But therein lies the problem – what are the standards? Apart from a teacher's own existing experience in assessing how well or badly any child might be doing at any given time there are none.

From August two years ago grades were abolished (the 5-14 grading system is became defunct). As I have pointed out, every pupil in S1-S3 will be deemed to be working towards or at level 3.

The only differentiation to let anyone, pupils, teachers or parents, know where their child is in relation to grasping any given topic or subject is contained in the words Developing , Consolidating and Secure.

When teachers write reports for pupils in secondary they will be able to say that any given child is at level 3 and that they are putting in excellent, very good, good or satisfactory effort, that they are developing , consolidating or secure in the subject and then they will add a more personal comment. They will also indicate what they have covered in literacy and numeracy in their subject but they will not be allowed to comment on what their actual level of ability is in terms of grades. This could have a very unwelcome knock on effect when it comes to national qualifications. Here is a quote from a lecture given by Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University.

"So far as the matching of assessment to students levels of understanding is concerned there are such serious concerns about the proposed new National Qualifications as to render very dubious indeed the claims that they are an improvement on what we currently have or even that they are in any sense consistent with what CfE seems to need."

When pupils reach the start of S4 they will be divided into two tracks; those who are judged to be at the level where they could be presented for the National 4 certificate and those who are deemed to be ready for National 5..

One of the effects of the reporting system could be that the parents of children who have been receiving the standard information that their child has been making 'good progress' or is 'consolidating' could be mystified as to why they are not allowed to sit National 5. Of course, misunderstandings can be sorted out, but what I really think is going to cause a stushie is National 4 exams.

I have yet to encounter a teacher who is happy with the idea of National 4 being internally assessed. Internal assessment could be open to all sorts of pressures. There is what is known as the Halo effect, where a teacher who likes a pupil can award higher marks based on a favourable perception of that child. Moreover there will inevitably be pressures for departments or schools to be seen to be doing well, or pressure from parents who may have an inflated notion of their child's abilities. On top of this an internally assessed qualification is unlikely to command the same respect in the wider world as one which is externally assessed.

"This department is very concerned as to the speed of implementation and about the " wooliness" of the assessment. What will a parent make of a report in which all their child receives for every subject is – your child is consolidating – it says nothing constructive in our opinion."

5. What's behind it?

So much for the nuts and bolts of CfE. But what is its raison d'être? What is at its core?

Everyone knows that education is a political football and each government tries to imprint their own ideas onto the education system in order to promote their own philosophy. I think CfE's aims become clearer when you take into account when it was being developed a knowledge of traditional subjects was not seen to be nearly as important as a programme which delivers work and life skills. Employers argued for the importance of employee flexibility and the four capacities reflect this.

As Chris Holligan, a senior lecturer in Education at the University of the West of Scotland said in article for The Herald in June 2010-08-04

"People might begin to realise that the four capacities have the imprint of aims and values that serve the interests of the business sector rather than any broader conception of the public good. The focus has been on the 'experiences' and 'outcomes' which teachers are expected to 'deliver', rather than on the underlying rationale of the whole exercise. That the capacities are merely sketched and not incorporated into a deeper and more culturally nuanced vision of the good society is a cause for concern, especially in a pluralist democracy...

It appropriates American trends by favouring a highly adaptable but compliant labour force who will follow orders rather than reflect on the reasons behind them. It facilitates the growth of employees rather than citizens – employees who will lack the mental tools to evaluate critically the competitive culture into which they will be incorporated."

"There is a very serious information gap and a great deal left to guesswork. The pace of change and development needed for the Senior Phase combined with the on-going implementation and development of the Broad General Education is fearsome. In over 32 years of teaching experience and having experience of many changes there has never been quite such a whole scale change in the education system and structure. The on-going development workload for teachers is unprecedented and if rationally considered is actually quite unmanageable and a serious risk is being taken with the future of pupils , never mind the pressure on teachers. At the same time there is conflicting advice and mixed messages coming from various sources and it seems that political dogma and fear of failure from the government are starting to boil over. This is ludicrous at this stage and simply indicates how poorly considered most of the changes have been. The recipe is not well mixed."

And finally, on a lighter note, someone who might be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor posted this gem – already familiar to many thousands of teachers – on YouTube. (It's a couple of years old but it's still hilarious )

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books