With the government review of Scottish education, it is timely to reflect on the views of a group of educators brought together in June 2019. During a Saturday session facilitated by educationalists, education leaders and academics CfE2.0 was considered.
NB this article written early 2020, pre COVID.
The late 2019 launch of the refreshed narrative of CfE was an opportunity to signal changes to CfE but left many disappointed. The key concern was that the ‘slimmed down’ version of what had gone before did not help do the job any better. However, those involved in the refreshed CfE microsite suggested it met OECD’s recommendation to simplify CfE’s narrative and reduce its complexity.
Mark Priestley’s blog clarified that the microsite “is not a revision of CfE.” However, Professor Walter Humes noted (ResearchEd Dollar, 2019), new narratives crept in, namely “curriculum making” and “empowerment”. One might ask, if these new narratives can creep into policy then what about other new ideas, critiques and revisions to thinking? For example, the starting point of the ‘CfE visuals’ are the values. It has been questioned before whether the four values of the Scottish mace are for parliamentarians, the parliament or for education, educators or children (Gilles, 2006; Walsh & McLennan, 2018). Why is fresh thinking, like this, not entering alongside the other emerging narratives? This proposal specifically questions the values of CfE, however the broad principle raises questions about underling values displayed during curriculum reform. How open are we? And who decides?
Winds of Change
The RSA (Royal Society of Arts, Commerce and Manufactures) and EduMod co-hosted a “CfE2.0 gaitherin’” exploration session at Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh. The event was free, open to all and advertised by RSA Scotland websites, Eventbrite and shared across social media. ‘The purpose of education’, ‘what work’s, ‘what isn’t working’ were discussed and captured on flip-chart paper. The event brought together early-years, primary, secondary and HE/FE educators; policy, practice and academics; various discipline backgrounds; newly qualified teachers and old hands; private and state sector experiences; mixed genders; unpromoted teachers, middle level leaders and mainly unpromoted teachers. Notable was the lack of teachers of black and minority ethnic ethnicity. In total 39 teachers gathered; a mere 0.75% of the GTCS registered population however still notable when we consider that the CfE public ‘national debate’ engaged 0.029% of Scotland’s population. This was described as “good for democracy” (Munn et all, 2007). These figures are worth reflecting on.
The purpose of education
An important part of open, participative and transparent discussions on the day focussed on educational philosophy. Despite divergent views, common causes were clear. There was little opposition to the four capacities of CfE, albeit systematic implementation of them may be questioned . There was a call for “pragmatic implementation.” If we assume the capacities came from Delores’s 1996 UNESCO Report ‘Learning: The Treasures Within’, these largely replicate four broad areas which education contributes to: to know (academics/knowledge), to do (skills), to be (self-actualisation and wellbeing), and to be together (community cohesion).
Recent PISA results have caused some concerns about declines in knowledge, as measured through testing. One might also reflect on how the skills noted in Es&Os could reflect skills needed today. The World Economic Skills noted in 2015 could not be incorporated, far less the skills of 2020. The time is ripe for review and consideration of how curriculum evolves in a fast-changing world. A better balance has been worked towards between attainment and skills through successive Determined to Succeed and Developing Young Workforce policies. However, parity of esteem remains utopian. We should be reminded that education is for a whole lot more than merely serving the economy.
At present there is no definable matrix around celebrating ‘to be.’ Simultaneously, we continue to receive worrying reports of mental health epidemics affected young people. Whilst the PISA academic scores worried many, perhaps the most concerning aspect was the evidence around children’s happiness, or lack of it. Finally, ‘community cohesion is difficult to measure. No education metrics exist. We might ask if we need them. Can community cohesion be gauged by low juvenile offending? And are reductions here because of better education or different reporting? The devil is in the detail, and critique of statistics is important, something educationalists called for more of during our day together.
The undernoted contains the unedited notes of those who attended a day to visualise CfE2.0. They are not in data sets but in qualitative data which reflects a rich tapestry of educational considerations. One note from the day concerned the “Datafication of everything which is moving away from a focus on the purpose of education.” Broad proposed purposes included; “To know our place in the wider world: locally, nationally and internationally.”
Views shared are arranged under an array of headings well kent within education, although quoted content from flip charts is unedited. This reflects the complexity of education. Furthermore, the inclusion of many views reflects the will to hear all voices, experiences and ideas as we seek to improve education. Hopefully the undernoted will be considered during this review phase of Scottish education.
CfE2.0: Practitioners’ Voices:-
It was noted “the curriculum should last for 10-15 years - we need a new one” and that; “We need a new curriculum that is genuinely equitable for all and has different pathways - not driven by high stakes exams at the end of school.” Issues of recruitment and retention were linked to CfE and its “increased workload.”
Much consideration was given as to the purpose of education in Scotland. One noted “The purpose of education is to tell a story: but what story are we telling?” Whilst poly-purposes were noted, so too was the challenge of “Jenga Curriculum” with “more and more things added until it collapses.” Some reflected on whether “the purposes of education change at different stages i.e. greater priority for some purposes at differing stages.”
A core driver noted was; “Improving things for young people at the heart of every decision we make.” The complexity of purpose to practice was perhaps best summarised as “Utopia for realists.”
Enlightened Education: Teaching Thinking
“We knock out curiosity” was noted alongside the desire for “Developing criticality- discerning population”, “To help children think for themselves”, “Know the established cannon and how to criticise it,” “To develop meta cognition : learning how to learn as the ultimate survival skill”
However, “OECD and PISA show that problem-solving skills have declined since CfE came in.”
One note said, “We do not know what pedagogy underpins CfE”. Facilitators reflecting on this considered whether indeed there should be a pedagogy, however lack of awareness of pedagogies may be an issue; especially if pedagogy is central to improving education.
Overall structure did not come up as often as in current debates however concern was noted at “Narrowing of subject choice, and the finite nature of curriculum all need to be questioned.” It was queried whether educators should be just that rather than of subjects.
Transitions were noted three times including the need to “Focus on how children learn, at each stage, with effective transitions.” Two comments circled around the same concern: “Transition from BGE to SQA to university does not work” and “BGE/Exam disconnect needs serious addressing before CfE can actually take root.”
Skills, Knowledge and Es & Os
It was felt “Es&Os are not developmentally appropriate. It has led to a tick box approach that all teachers are following” and that “Es&Os being vague had both pros and cons.” The skills/knowledge debate saw one note “Knowledge is the starting point – skills are the consequence of the knowledge.” Meanwhile it was suggested, “SQA has invented skills that have no application outside of that qualification.”
Culture, Leadership and Empowerment
One noted “a need to tear down structures that inhibit relationship building, conversations and collaborations but to be led bottom-up and not just imposed top-down.” This was echoed by “Our system is supposed to be bottom up by the management of it is top down.”
Many comments on leadership included “Leadership- passing the buck?” [One wonders if this is consequence of misinterpreted a mis-used leadership lexicon whereby ‘distributed leadership’ has entered policy rhetoric and thus practice with no alternative thinking to challenge it]. One questioned “What would a bottom-up system look like?” whilst suggesting Church of Scotland or University governance models.
There was; “Concern about careerist leaders- ‘the Biggles factor’ who do not remember what it is like on the ground and therefore impose without due care.”
Amidst all of this, this article started with empowerment being a word entering refreshed narratives and promoted in policy. However, one noted; “The paradox of agency is that too much reduces it.” Another noted “Loss of agency after ITE- scared to take risks with practice” in what someone else noted as “The compliance system.” The demise of SCEL was cited as an example of “lack of pluralism.” Another note stated; “Autonomy is a myth when educators are accountable to a government that tries to justify itself to an electorate through targets and data.” One note on “Scottish education is so connected politically” raises questions as to whether education requires a manifesto similar to the Royal College of Physicians’ calls to depoliticise healthcare.
There was a desire for “Not just to challenge but to encourage. / To provide opportunity but also to want to engage with it.” This linked to the statement; “Teachers are the defenders of the Enlightenment but we are actually a heads-down profession.” On reflection one wonders if the profession should be defending or promoting? Is education a disruptive innovation we might ask?
In Early Years, Froebel courses were “felt to work” and it was noted language and relationships in the Early Years “give the best start to life.”
Other positives were noted too, including; “Many examples of innovative and successful collaborations and practice e.g. intergenerational work, working with therapists, school and community partnerships, inter-agency partnerships.” One thing to reflect on is that “[these are] often considered niche- why can’t the niche not be norm?”
Kingussie High School was cited as an “example of how a whole school community can begin to meet the needs of learners as well as forge community and consider really important issues like the environment.”
SQA were commended by Biology teachers as they felt “consulted and listened to now.”
Examinations and Assessment
The focus on “terminal exams” vexed in many who asked “are exams working” [NB “are inspections working” was also asked]. One noted that the “principles of CfE clashed with the assessment model” with another “SQA learning and teaching has become a bureaucratic grind. More work for the kids and less academic.“
One asked for “a more logical build up to terminal exams” with a radical suggestion being “SQA given over to universities …. To improve transitions.”
“We need to be more critical of the caveats that come with carrots” was one response alongside “Education system culture [considering] if we are in a hole, should we stop digging.”
PRAG and PEF “Generational improvement” aspired to
Optimism, with further improvement needed, was noted in “PEF has raised attainment but has that changed the trajectory?” One wanted “to break the generational legacy of suspicion of education.”
“Schools are being asked to plug the gaps of other services- throwing PEF money at it is increasing bureaucracy and not dealing with the underlying issues” similarly another note stated; “The poverty-related attainment gap has to be challenged by tackling poverty.” One suggested, “we cannot re-imagine the curriculum without our politicians having the courage to reimagine funding and distribution models” whilst another attendee desired “Stop placing requests to magnet schools and rich authorities.”
There was a plea for research to be used around sleep/school start days, best time for exams, and when to start formal curricula (Age 7?).
All ideas and change of course rests on implementation. There was recognition that; “We need to be realistic in terms of implementation- a pragmatic approach.” Changes to CfE will need a good diagnosis, clear philosophy and policy followed by pragmatic, achievable and ambitious actions that improve education for young people. As was noted, this needs to be the heart of decision making.
Neil McLennan, RSA Fellowship Councillor (Scotland); Professor Rowena Arshad (formerly Head of Moray House, University of Edinburgh), Robin Macpherson (co-founder EduMod). Further CfE2.0 events are planned through RSA Scotland this year.
 Methodology 1, percentage of population engaged in national debate:- 1,517 responded to 2002 ‘the national debate’ (Munn et. al. 2007). Population of Scotland, 2001 Census (NRS Scotland) 5,062, 011. NB population growing in this period and so a greater population in figure in 2002 would make this % lower.
Methodology 2, percentage of teachers engaged in CfE2.0 discussion July 2019:- 39 for RSA/EduMod event. Number of GTCS Registered teachers in Scotland in 2018 (latest figures available NB, these have increased over past three years):- 51,959).