In January 2015, I found myself at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) in Cincinnati. Thomas Good delivered a keynote and I am pretty sure that Daniel Muijs, now of Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate, and David Reynolds were there. Muijs and Reynolds are responsible for a seminal paper summarising the evidence on the most effective ways to teach mathematics.
One aspect of the conference stood out to me at the time. The group of education academics representing Scotland were treated with a special kind of awe and respect by most, if not all, of the delegates. The following year’s congress was due to be held in Glasgow and there were lots of comments to the effect that Scotland had a particularly enlightened education system. Delegates quizzed the Scottish party on advice on how to persuade their own politicians to adopt similar policies. A particular contrast was drawn with England, its conservative government (it was actually still a Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition at the time) and their regressive education policies instituted by the demonic Michael Gove.
The buzz about Scotland involved its ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘. Developed in the 2000s, it was first implemented in Scottish schools in 2010-11. In the time since 2015, more and more evidence has emerged of the failure of this flagship policy. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown a gradual decline in maths and science and mixed results for reading:
This week, at the unusual time of 8.00 pm on Thursday night, we learnt that the pass rate for Scottish Higher exams has sharply declined. The Highers are taken by Scottish students as a school-leaving exam and so have high stakes for the students involved because they affect future study and career opportunities.
It is hard to know exactly what to make of this decline. I am not an expert in how the Scottish Highers are graded but it seems to be a mix of criterion-based judgement with a fiddle-factor to take account of the difficulty of the exam. One thing is clear, it is not the kind of system England had in the 2000s where grade inflation debased the currency of the exams. On its own, we may be tempted to explain away this decline, but the fact that it triangulates with the evidence from PISA suggests to me that we are witnessing a real fall in Scottish educational standards.
If we assume that this decline has something to do with the Curriculum for Excellence then it is worth looking at exactly what these reforms entailed. Here lies a warning for Australia. Curriculum for Excellence sought to put into practice the kinds of ideas that fill the air in Australia’s education conference circuit where delegates head to lunch, grab a mini quiche and some spinach salad and discuss the idea that students in the 21st century do not need to know stuff but instead need to become, “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors,” the four ‘key capacities’ that the Curriculum for Excellence seeks to foster.
As with many trendy ideas about curriculum reform, subject disciplines are downplayed in favour of cross-curricular projects and of building generic and vague personal capacities. This is damaging enough in itself because the kinds of capacities that we seek to develop, such as critical thinking, often require deep subject knowledge. It is also deeply reductive, viewing education merely as preparation for some future function rather than a good in itself. However, possibly of most practical significance is that the educrats who drafted the Curriculum for Excellence were floating so high on their own abstract rhetoric that they couldn’t deign to flesh out the details of what they actually wanted teachers and schools to do.
Australia’s Gonski 2.0 review has distinct echoes of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. We already have the ‘general capabilities’ of the Australian curriculum that mirror Scotland’s, “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors,” and that sit alongside subject content. However, the Gonski 2.0 reviewers want us to double-down on these capabilities, Scottish style.
Such themes also permeate the new Mparntwe Education Declaration that is intended to set the fundamental direction of Australian education. Goal 2 is that, “All young Australians become: confident and creative individuals; successful lifelong learners; active and informed members of the community.” However, how much the wording of this declaration actually matters remains to be seen.
Lost among the cous cous and cheeseboards or perhaps hiding somewhere behind the coffee-pod machine that has run out of milk, is the idea that education is about learning powerful ideas from domains of knowledge that have evolved and been refined over time. If we forget that, not only will we forget who we are, we can forget about being the education powerhouse that we claim to want to be.