Learning lessons from the failure of Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence”

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In 2011, I attended a presentation by Dylan Wiliam in Melbourne. As ever with Wiliam, it was a lively and provocative session that made me think. I distinctly remember the discussion of ‘Pareto Improvements’ which represent a great way of thinking about improving a school or education system.

At that time, Scotland had just rolled-out its ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Wiliam mentioned this in order to make a point that it wasn’t the curriculum that would deliver excellence but the quality of teaching and learning, something that could be enhanced by the use of formative assessment. A good teacher with a bad curriculum is likely to do better than a bad teacher with a good curriculum. So Scotland could name their new curriculum a ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ but excellence is not necessarily what they would get as a result.

I was convinced by this argument at the time. However, in the intervening six years I have changed my mind. Teaching is important but it is difficult to untangle from the curriculum. Some of the effects we attribute to teachers are actually effects of teacher+curriculum. If you don’t teach kids their multiplication tables then they won’t learn them, no matter how good a teacher you are. A good curriculum helps teachers and a bad curriculum really messes everything up.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was developed as a result of an inquiry set-up by the then Labour government in Scotland. The inquiry reported its findings in 2004. However, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) came to power in 2007 and it was up to the new government to oversee implementation. This represented something of a perfect storm. The SNP is effectively a single-issue political party dedicated to gaining Scotland’s independence from The United Kingdom. That’s what motivates their membership and their politicians. You can just imagine the new government’s relief at being presented an off-the-shelf solution for improving education, drawn-up by the experts. Who could reproach them for following expert advice? After all, we should leave politics out of education, right?

Unfortunately, the path of CfE has not been smooth. Its detractors are pulling their hair out while even its fans admit that it needs a bit of work. John Swinney, Scotland’s education minister, has brought in reforms that include the introduction of more assessment.

These reforms are the result of a review conducted by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and commissioned by the Scottish government. The OECD noted:

“Curriculum for Excellence represents an ambitious departure seeking to develop a coherent 3-18 curriculum around capacities and learning, rather than school subjects, with a different approach to assessment from that in place before. It is complex as it is organised around four capacities (covering 12 attributes and 24 capabilities across the four); five levels, from early to senior; seven principles, six entitlements, ten aims, and four contexts for learning; eight curriculum areas and three interdisciplinary areas; and several hundreds of Experiences and Outcomes.”

I think there are two linked aspects of this statement that are critical: the departure from a system based upon school subjects and the complexity of the system that replaced it.

No doubt, the calls for reform of CfE have been bolstered by the latest round of PISA results that show a decline in Scotland’s performance since 2009. The comparison with neighbouring England is illuminating:

So what has gone wrong?

Firstly, subject-areas exist for a reason. They represent well-connected bodies of knowledge and understanding; the kind of thing you might be able to draw on a (very big) concept map. They have an internal logic that I suspect matches the way that we construct schema in our long-term memories.

If you can work your way through the complexity of CfE (and take a look at these Key Links/Documents if you want to appreciate just how complex it has become) then you find that a focus on ‘learning’ actually means a focus on inquiry and investigation. For instance, the draft numeracy and mathematics benchmarks essentially force these teaching methods on teachers by defining them as outcomes. In student-friendly language, we read statements such as, “I have experimented with everyday items as units of measure to investigate and compare sizes and amounts in my environment, sharing my findings with others,” and, “I have investigated how whole numbers are constructed, can understand the importance of zero within the system and can use my knowledge to explain the link between a digit, its place and its value.” We read the statement, “I use practical materials and can ‘count on and back’ to help me understand addition and subtraction, recording my ideas and solutions in different ways.” This is constructivist maths involving the use of practical investigation and multiple strategies.

[As an aside, why didn’t anyone involved consider the absurdity of writing in student-friendly language, “I am developing a sense of size and amount by observing, exploring, using and communicating with others about things in the world around me”? A student working towards this benchmark can’t yet count so how is it remotely possible that he or she will understand this statement?]

You would think that if the experts were suggesting the adoption of a curriculum based upon inquiry learning and constructivist principles then inquiry learning and constructivism would be supported by the best available evidence. And yet they are not. The evidence actually stacks-up against these methods. So why do they make it into a curriculum? They are there because they fit the ideology of the educationalists involved; educationalists who would rather question the applicability of scientific evidence to education than question their own deeply held beliefs.

I am not sure whether the complexity of CfE is an unavoidable consequence of abandoning subject disciplines and embracing ephemeral inquiry and interdisciplinary principles or whether the complexity arises out of the need to give sufficient prominence to the menagerie of learning theories sponsored by different educationalists. In a sense it doesn’t really matter. We have seen a very similar pattern arise in Canada with the adoption of a constructivist approach to teaching mathematics and in Queensland, Australia, with Productive Pedagogies. These reforms didn’t work because they can’t work and teachers end-up imploring the authorities to, “just tell me what to teach.”

It is the kind of mess you create if you take politics out of education and leave it to the experts.

Note: Back in 2011, Dylan Wiliam probably set-out a more nuanced view of the role of curriculum than I have given him credit for. At the time, I had not researched these areas as much as I have now and so I was only able to take on fairly simple messages.


25 thoughts on “Learning lessons from the failure of Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence”

  1. Alex Brown says:

    The Wegerif article is exactly the problem- it is rationale and reasonable, and certainly articulate, but ultimately vapid and anecdotal. Like a Ted Talk, it is all puff and no substance.

    I ‘discovered’ the evidence for explicit instruction because I had become exhausted teaching student-centred pedagogies. That explicit instruction and related teacher-centred pedagogies are EFFICIENT in the environments we find ourselves teaching is the salient point for me.

    Critics often focus on the moral or, as you say, Greg, the ideological – the truth is that while we continue to teach 20-30 novices in rooms for 40-90 minutes efficiency matters. As an extension, when the curriculum allows you to do other parts of teaching more easily, such as questioning or feedback, then isn’t that a good thing?

    Currently in my eighth year, I am now see it as a crime that I have taught for seven years (in two schools) without a default, fully-resources lesson sequence organised by expert teachers. Hopefully Curriculum Support comes back soon; in public schools, it was a lifesaver.

    • Michael Pye says:

      I have argued with my colleagues about curriculum design, specifically that it is a different set of skills that needs practice and dedicated training to do well. It is the same with diagnostic/test creation and research, teachers should be part of the process but heavily directed and supported by experts (who may have been former teachers).

      I have become confident enough that I can teach anything well providing I have a good level of knowledge (this is often not the case as I teach SEN and it is assumed subject knowledge is not that important). What i am not sure about is whether I am teaching the right thing. Looking at colleagues schemes and lesson aims/objectives I see no evidence that anyone else has a better idea for me to learn off which frustrates and worries me. The idea of being provided with such material is appealing but if it is based on philosophical preference rather then rigorous evidence it would do more harm then good.

  2. Thank goodness you have flagged this topic up, Greg, it is so important for people to see what teachers are subjected to via those in authority over them.

    You might be interested in the comments I have added and the thread that shows whilst we all benefited from Scotland’s ‘Clackmannanshire’ studies some time ago, Scotland itself has not heeded the findings of its own research!


    See also Anne Glennie’s almost single-handed battle to bring common sense and research findings to Scotland’s beleaguered teachers!

  3. Spike says:

    Hi Greg. I could write a book on the problems with “Curriculum for excellence” but I’ll keep it to a couple of points. Your graphs are a wee bit misleading as the PISA score axes have different scales. This hides the fact that there is a general drift downwards and 2 specific collapses.

    Maths is down by only 8 which is mostly the general drift down as most maths lessons have not changed much. This general drift is caused by teachers not having the time to concentrate on teaching as most schools were told to independently prepare a course by stating how they were going to teach each of the “Experiences and Outcomes”(mostly in maths a book matching exercise”. After this it was preparing for the new exams higher up the school.

    A parent of a kid in a Higher Maths course, (English year 12 your year 11), told me that her daughter had been told to get a tutor by her teacher (the head of maths) at the beginning of the year. She would not pass without one. When her daughter asked for help after class, she was told “I have not got time. Go and see your tutor.”

    I believed the increased discussion etc. in “Curriculum for Excellence” would increase the attainment gap because it would lead to more discussion between middle class students and middle class teachers and poor pupils would get ignored. It has not happened because teachers have been burned out and have not had time for anybody. Everybody has suffered not just children from poor backgrounds.

    Reading has suffered more because of a ridiculous literacy curriculum including calling a picture or video a text.

    Science is the worst because of the following. Science exams in Scotland have been mainly in single sciences. Preparation for the basic exam has been in years 10 and 11(Australia 9 and 10). Year 8 and 9 was a general science course. The general science course is now Year 8 to Year 10. This means the kids are not preparing for their Physics, Chemistry and Biology exams till year 11. The have gone from drifting in years 8 and 9 to drifting in years 8 to 10. This is likely to be one of the main reasons for the collapse.

    I am willing to say more about the dreaded “Curriculum for Excellence” but I don’t think it is that worth discussing internationally except to say: Avoid.

  4. Hi Greg,
    Love your posts as you know and I am widely sharing this one too.

    I too have grave concerns about CFE due to much of what you are saying above and due to a wider reading of research into effectiveness in learning. The main reason I have doubts though is that I am a teacher who has, since 2011, spent all of my time writing and re-writing course after course with no sight of the finish line. Indeed, I spent 2 hours today just trying to decipher SQA guidelines as to what constitutes a pass at N4 Science level! Got it all sorted, mapped it out then realised there had been an update letter that discarded much of the assessment I’ve been putting the kids through all year!

    I do have one small issue with what you write, “The SNP is effectively a single-issue political party dedicated to gaining Scotland’s independence from The United Kingdom.” That is a very facile and superficial view of what has happened in Scotland since 2007. Is independence their main aim? Yes? Is being a single issue party the way to achieve that aim? Absolutely not.

    They have failings and their naive trust in the world class leadership (self-awarded) we have in education in Scotland has been a major mistake. In common with all parties – they signed up to this new all-singing’ and all-dancing’ curriculum and they have learned the hard way that it is a Springfield Monorail of a prize. But – you cannot gain governance 3 times (with one being with a majority) in a PR system deliberately designed to ensure that there would be no chance of this happening without them offering more than just independence. If you want a list of their successes and failures I am more than happy to provide both or either but, in general, they have become successful through being able to provide stability in Government and by providing a sense that they actually do try to fight Scotland’s corner after decades of this not being the case.

    This being said, what has happened is on their watch and it is their job to sort it out and I do not think the start has been auspicious. Indeed, the main reduction in workload letter form the SQA declared (paraphrased) ‘and to compensate for the removal of these tests, we will be extending coursework…’ Hhmmm.

    I wish you well and will not be ‘cancelling my subscription’ as your writing, just about all of the time, is evidence based, coloured with personal views and with declared doubts when appropriate. To see you dip your toe into politics without seeking an evidence base…. not so sure.

    All the best,


    • You raise a fair point about the SNP. I’m not particularly interested in Scottish politics outside of education and I am writing for an international audience who probably don’t know much about the independence issue – which is why I made what I saw as an explanatory comment. Thanks for adding some nuance.

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  6. Excellent and in my estimation correct analysis of Scotland as exemplar of what’s gone wrong in a lot of the education systems in the West. I’ll only add to your discussion of the relative importance of teacher quality and curriculum the not-so-commonly-used razor some call Leibig’s Law of the Minimum, often illustrated by “Leibig’s Barrel”.

    Like all good analysis tools it is a gross oversimplification but retains characteristics of the modelled situation that provide critical insight into functional impairment. While the concept arises in modelling how populations fare when faced with scarcity of resources one might apply it in many situations where multiple environmental factors affect the optimization of some outcome — such as educational attainment where one might posit several covariates such as teacher quality, curriculum quality, school environment, student behaviour, and so on.

    Each might represent a hole in the barrel, at different heights. To stretch the model, some holes might have different diameters and thus have more impact. We pour water into the top at some fixed rate … If one imagines only two holes of fairly large diameter at somewhat the same height, this gives a nice picture showing how a problem in curriculum limits benefit of a improved teacher training and the corresponding situation in reverse. After this first-order filter is applied one may further discuss the relative size of the holes, which is lower on the barrel and thus kicks in first, and what other holes might be scattered around the barrel. But even at first-order the model helps clarify the situation.

  7. Your observations about these two variables also brings me to mind of the PISA analysis on autonomy and accountability, in which it was found that giving schools and teachers more autonomy in how to use funds and implement policy in an environment where assessment data was made public had a strong effect on learning outcomes. But giving autonomy in an environment where assessment data was not made public (lack of accountability) had a NEGATIVE effect, and implementing accountability without also giving autonomy had only a very small positive effect.

    Clearly there exist variables that function well together and may have a deleterious effect in isolation. For example, suppose one adds the hardware for an automatic transmission to a manual transmission vehicle — in a box in the back seat of the vehicle. That will reduce gas mileage and decrease passenger space. It is not hardware alone that is needed but hardware + installation …

  8. “You can just imagine the new government’s relief at being presented an off-the-shelf solution for improving education, drawn-up by the experts. Who could reproach them for following expert advice? After all, we should leave politics out of education, right?”

    Not to get all political on you, but this struck me as an exact analog of what just transpired in the “Ryancare” debacle in the U.S.

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  14. Am I the only one who doesn’t consider “student friendly language” to be particularly student-friendly? Instead I find it idiosyncratic and affected. NOBODY talks like that, and using “I” in the third person comes off as condescending and presumptious. This is before one considers, as Greg does here, that the majority of such statements have many subclauses making them difficult to read, and include vocabulary and concepts likely to be lost on 99% of young students … so what’s the point?

    • John says:

      May I suggest that, despite the name, the student friendly language statements are actually intend for teachers acting as exemplification, Or rather, whether intended or not, they are used by exception by teachers. I know of no student who accesses or makes use of these statements without direction and assistance of a teacher.

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