Curriculum for Enlightenment - RSA

Curriculum for Enlightenment

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  • Picture of Neil McLennan FRSA
    Neil McLennan FRSA
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Neil McLennan FRSA looks at Scottish education and curriculum now, and explores what could be possible in the future.

There is something wrong with Scottish education. We have seen teachers writing anonymously to newspapers, scared of identification for fear of reprisals.

Critiques of the system are cast aside by those of authority as the system ploughs on with almost Prozac-esque smiles and nods of approval.  “Isn’t it all great”, “Nothing to see here,” can be heard from officials who are seeing something different from the luxury of ‘the chateaux’ ‘behind the lines’ than the front-line war-weary troops perception.

And now Scottish students are also eloquently criticising the system they have gone through. The winner of the Scottish Review essay might well be noted for her ‘educated’ critical thinking and effective use of English language alas she informs us of a system that does not really acknowledge such outcomes. This was not the essay reflecting issues facing young people either. Both runner-up papers noted issues of mental health and learning support. Many others focused on issues relating to education including another indicting the current education system.  

Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is now 17 years old (if we take national debates as the starting point).  I told new teachers then that CfE would not, and should not, be the last curriculum system they see during their career. The curriculum should evolve and change through time. The opportunity for review is ripe. However, the ideals of the system were initially well received and still hold consensus approval. Nevertheless, the implementation of them has left much to be desired. Whilst there can be said to be four broad purposes for schooling, the Scottish system still largely hold to one of them- data generated by exam results. Even in the latest policy iteration, Closing the Attainment gap, exam results are the primary measure of success. University places initially became a proxy measure apropos signs of increased numbers of low SIMD students going to university. This year, this seems to have stalled slightly. In any case, one must be careful here as inflating figures through widening access programmes does not necessarily mean improvements in the results for lower SIMD students. And it certainly does not reflect positively if numbers admitted to university is high but drop off rates are equally high. A university education has value but should not be the pinnacle point. We need a broad, balanced education system and purposes.

So, what are the purposes? First and foremost, education is for students “to know”, ’the knowledge economy’, usually examined by exam results. Scottish education has seen this as it’s primary purposes for decades. Authorities will argue otherwise, however, ask anyone who has been through inspection recently.

The second purpose of education is “to do”, relating to skill development. This is usually for jobs and the economy however we cannot lose sight of the fact that skills are for learning, life and work. The Building the Curriculum (BTC) 4 Skills document still has merit although its implementation was overshadowed in CfE roll out by ‘BTC5’ assessment guides being naively, urgently called for by the teaching profession. Education policy through Determined to Succeed (DtS) and then Developing Young Workforce (DYW) promoted the value of “to do” however it has never achieved parity of esteem with “to know” as an aim of Scottish education. DYW heralded a brave new world in this area, however, like much of Scottish education failed to learn the lessons of the past, DtS in particular. Moreover, the fall in oil and gas prices and reduced economic productivity in general stunted enthusiasm for this area as increases in jobs for students did not come to fruition. It is an example of how education can only do so much. Ask anyone struggling with ‘Closing the Gap’ and they will share similar frustrations.  Whilst education can work so hard, to achieve outcomes we are reliant on system wide improvement across multiple areas including economic policy and social welfare.

The third aim of schooling is “to be”, much discussed lately and an area I reflected on last weekend alongside a former senior education director. Policy makers will point to GIRFEC as “covering this area” however how much the SHANARI indicators have been well devised, implemented and evaluated is open to enquiry. Furthermore, the staling of “Named Person” has shown how sledgehammers do not work and that there needs to be balance between state action and individual empowerment. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged by many that we do not do enough in this area, or at least, the system is perhaps not geared to acknowledge work in this area. Self-actualisation and ‘being human’ is so important in an increasingly de-humanising world.

The final area is perhaps the most important in a complex and challenging world. “To be together” in my interpretation revolves around the ability of well-formed individual in themselves to be able to link together with others in groups in class, in the wider school community, in local communities, across Scotland and Britain as a nation and to be global citizens. This happens in many schools by default through the work they do. Again, how far it is acknowledged within the system is unclear at best. We still judge by exam results only.

A balance is called for and needed across education. Ask entrepreneurs who made their way out of poverty through effort, skills and hard work if they were bothered about not getting Highers.  I know many friends who left school and went straight into employment. Whilst I finished my degree with student loans to pay, they were well on their way to owning houses and were driving cars bought from hard earned cash. The system needs all, CfE heralded all, but at present something is not working.

We need to learn the lessons of Scottish educations proud past; review the present; and, in and informed way, reach to the future. One proposal would be to revise Scottish education around Curriculum for Enlightenment. Professor Walter Humes criticises the boastful nature of Scottish education. Many herald a past they never saw. However, Scotland can be rightly proud of its enlightenment era. Whilst it was a European phenomenon in some ways, we have our own story and successes to share. Whether we have the conditions for enlightenment now are questionable. Whether there is a desire for change is less debatable. 

Lets now move on to show the progress our people deserve and demand. CfE2.0? It is time. Lets look towards a Curriculum for Enlightenment. 

Neil McLennan FRSA is a RSA Fellow and Fellowship Councillor for Scotland. He is also Senior Lecturer and Director of Leadership Programmes, University of Aberdeen.  He worked on Determined to Succeed Policy implementation for Learning and Teaching Scotland was an Education QIO and local authority acting Service Manager.


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  • Insightful reflections on the need to review the Curriculum and explore the purposes of education.  The theme of Education for Enlightenment goes to the heart of how knowledge is gained so most relevant to 21st Century Enlightenment