5 things we love, 5 things we don’t care for at all about Curriculum for Excellence

Next week, the OECD review on Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is being launched by OECD and Scottish Government from Paris.

You can register here https://meetoecd1.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_y4cvTomITHWgYuKmuTgUEA

Its initial release date was delayed and postponed before the election thereby introducing a degree of political news management. In reviewing the curriculum contributions from a wider political perspective than the Education and Skills Committee was not welcomed. We can safely it’s nothing to do with us.

If asked, we would have highlighted our 5 Good 5 Bad about CfE.

5 Good things

1. Democratic making of a country’s curriculum

Back in the day the new Scottish Parliament set out aiming to involve Scottish civil society in its politics. Curriculum for Excellence was its great success in democratic policy-making. Thousands of Scots contributed to the National Debate. It identified an agenda for change for Scottish education. We believe democracy matters in our education system.

We do wonder if the OECD Review commissioned by the Scottish Government will be measuring the system’s success in implementing the aspirations of the Scottish people from 2002.

2. A common curriculum 3-18

A socialist curriculum should be one that permits a parity of participation across its plans for the learning of children and young people. CfE is a permissive curriculum defined as it is by a broad general education in which learners gain experiences throughout the experiences and outcome of the curricular framework. Experiential learning is a universal strand of all human development. It’s a curriculum for everyone.

3. The totality of all

The curriculum is not only about subjects or organised knowledge yet encompasses interdisciplinary learning, the life of the school as a community and chances for children and young people’s personal achievement. When being developed for all learners the curriculum was to be about knowledge plus achievement and softer elements of schooling and other experiences. Such an approach was supported by literacy numeracy and health and well being as being the responsibility of all. Post-COVID social emotional and mental wellbeing is a priority and safe to say the responsibility of all.

4. New principles of design

The flexible permissive nature of the curriculum was elaborated through a set of principles that extended the scope of a curriculum. However, schools and teachers have not yet fully utilised these principles. At the early stage relevant and challenging and enjoyable learning hasn’t always featured. While at the Senior Phase, learning designed through relevance personalisation and choice has not always been served by exam diet subjects in secondary schools.

5. The child at the centre

All those graphics from initial development onwards featured the learner at the centre surrounded by the curricular framework. The best developments in the curriculum have focused on children’s needs and personalised approaches whether play-based pedagogy at early stages or engaged beyond the school at senior phase.

5 Bad things

1. Built on a narrow set of values

Whoever inscribed four values on the Mace of the Scottish Parliament did not do Scottish education a favour. Wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion may be of benefit to our politicians. However, even the OECD recognised how limited they are in a recent document about an inclusive curriculum. Their six values linked to equity include cultural diversity, equity, equality, inclusion and fairness. Its one out of six for Scotland.

2. A missing capacity

The four capacities were gateways aspect for developing many schools’ curriculum and teachers’ classroom practice from the start. But critical thinking skills were missing. Their omission becomes more obvious in the early decades of the 21st century in dealing with social media and fake news. Learners need to be engaged in their learning with critical thinking leading to transformative action whether considering inequalities from the past, climate change or global citizenship and curricular injustices. The OECD (2020) has already identified the curricular injustice arising in experiences of intercultural learning between young people aged 15 from schools in adavantaged areas and those from disadvantaged areas. We doubt this will make Review report.

3. Embedding equality education

This actually became a recommendation in developing the young workforce, From the start CfE did not pay sufficient attention to curricular injustice either as a content issue in terms of decolonising past content or considerations to challenge social class barriers in curricular form. As a result of the TIE campaign a more inclusive curriculum was promoted through their work in challenging MSPs to promote change. But why only LGBTQI? .

4. Limited Senior Phase

A more socialist curriculum would engage in a balanced way with community and neighbourhood learning whether linked to work, community or wider achievement. The opportunity to challenge ideas of academic learning as the gold standard and moving away from “it’s only 5 Highers that count”. Models of neighbourhoods and schools linking together to offer learning have still not yet fully been implemented and supported. A 21st century curriculum needs to balance out learning locally/ and learning as a global citizen. More of Jimmy Reid’s education for life rather than education for work or career.

5. Digital learning nd technological change

The timing of the introduction of CfE at the start of 21st century was on the edge of more rapid developments in digital technology. Compared to developments in Wales, for example, digital learning didn’t extensively feature. After COVID the changes that online learning have begun will have a permanent impact on teaching and learning. While needing to support changes we can continue to ensure the curriculum definitely includes the ethos and life of the school as a community. Less pressure from high stakes exams and more about social and emotional wellbeing.

Alienation in a neo-liberal world: radical overhaul needed

Recently, the Jimmy Reid Foundation (JRF) published its paper on Scottish education re-culturing and recalibrating “Liberal education in a neo-liberal world”.   The JRF paper offers a critical summary of policy developments in Scottish education over the past 60 years. For socialists its timely publication offers comparison with a small book on new perspectives on policy and practice “Democratic socialism and education” from Neil Hopkins in England published in 2019.  In reviewing these texts we also reference Jimmy Reid’s Alienation speech at University of Glasgow as it provides the baseline and a backdrop to both text.  In April 1972 Jimmy gave his famed rectorial address as capitalism morphed from its state-managed form into the neo-liberal world.

Both JRF and Hopkins place current education and its recent developments within that neo-liberal world; JRF for Scotland and Hopkins perhaps with greater relevance for England. Marketisation and privatisation are prevalent globally across education systems, perhaps even more so after COVID.  JRF offers an extensive critique of such developments within Scotland particularly at Further Education and Higher Education sectors.  JRF hits the mark with a system-wide policy review identifying and addressing past failures in Scotland across the learners’ journey early years to FE and HE.  Hopkins is more concerned with what a socialist education system could be in the 21st century.   He has a more thematic approach considering pedagogy, curriculum and governance and their similarities and differences within a liberal education and a democratic socialist system    

In the Hopkins small book, he sets out the potential for a democratic socialist set of policies and practice. In doing so he offers the chance to question whether Scottish education is moving towards a more socialist system or is it locked into practices tied to the neo-liberal age.  Is the fragmented and atomised system in England to be our future?

Hopkins’ paper suggests that a common curriculum is necessary much like aspects of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. One of the Scottish curriculum’s strengths, underplayed in JRF, is its universal design. A design that involves a common inclusive nature framed as experiences and outcomes, applicable to every learner in school education from 3-18 years.  Hopkins accepts that a liberal education and a democratic socialist curriculum may be aligned in content. However he sees the need for more associative and communal curriculum making through negotiation in the system with no one agent or agency predominating.    

In Scotland Curriculum for Excellence started with a national debate. Arising from this consideration is the idea that we don’t require another OECD review in Scotland but a renegotiation with civil society in a renewed national debate, especially after COVID.  In Scotland our young people in school education are part of the electorate of the Parliament. Their engagement in re-making the curriculum could be part of engaging our communities and neighbourhoods more effectively in our schools.  For Hopkins the steps towards a more democratic curriculum needs to involve a wider group of curriculum makers. 

Hopkins emphasises democratic participation in pedagogy and seeks ways to balance out attention to individualist, community and collective approaches within both liberal education and a democratic socialist form.  For Scotland, its pedagogical injustices are highlighted by JRF in the continued unsupported use of organising learners through setting and streaming within 21st century classrooms. 

To be positive about the future the Scottish system the esteemed writers of JRF state that scottish education does have aspects that challenge neo-liberalism and constitute steps towards a more socialist system. Some markers are our common, comprehensive schools (apart from 4% private and 2% special), a common curriculum 3-18 framed in terms of an entitlement to a broad general education gained experientially and democratic participation at council level through elected education authorities that have the capacity to balance out centralisation. 

Both the JRF paper and the Hopkins book offer clear steps to move from liberal education in a neo-liberal world towards a democratic socialist approach that recognises, represents and redistributes through inclusive, equitable lifelong learning. 

To return to Jimmy Reid, both papers reflect his broader purpose of education for life not just for work.  Jimmy also placed an emphasis on social crimes in education which again complements the analysis in both text. As Jimmy Reid stated  liberal education commits social crimes against too many of our children and young people. Perhaps we all need to be tough on social crime and tough on the causes of social crime!  For him the “flowering of each individual personality and talents is the pre-condition of everyone’s development”.   Such a communal purpose and collective ideal is the next step to challenge liberal education in the neo-liberal world. 

Key references 

Boyd B. Kelly J. Maitles H. Liberal Education in a Neo-Liberal World: Re-Culturing and Recalibrating Jimmy Reid Foundation (2021)

Hopkins N. Democratic Socialism and Education: New Perspectives on Policy and Practice Springer (2019) 

Reid J. Alienation University of Glasgow (1972)