The article below was written before the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results were released.
These show that, compared with 2015, Scottish pupils have improved in reading but declined further (though not dramatically) in mathematics and science. While the modest improvement in reading is encouraging, the overall direction of travel in Scottish education since 2000 has been seen by commentators as a continuing source of concern.
PISA results provide a useful basis for international comparisons, but they should not be regarded as definitive. The programme’s methods of data collection and analysis are a source of debate among statistical experts. In any case, test results represent only one indicator of the health of an educational system.
What is unfortunate, however, is that the PISA results attract particular (and perhaps disproportionate) attention because they are now the only substantial source of comparative data available to Scottish policy makers. Several years ago, the Scottish Government took the decision to withdraw from two valuable international surveys, PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey). Given the declining trend in mathematics and science in particular, this must be judged an ill-advised decision, cutting off the possibility of gaining additional insight into the reasons for disappointing performance.
Resistance to systematic data collection and genuinely independent evaluation of policies has been a regrettable feature of recent administrations, despite the grandiose aspirations of the 2017 Research Strategy document. For a fuller discussion of this, see https://researched.org.uk/ambitious-rhetoric-but-the-reality-falls-short/
One further point in relation to the article below should be noted. It would be simplistic to conclude that the current problems facing Scottish education can all be attributed to Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). There are much deeper structural and cultural forces at work, which have been evident both before and after devolution. These include: excessively hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions; misleading rhetoric invoking the concepts of consultation, partnership and consensus; a poor sense of educational history; a policy community that is inward-looking and often self-serving; professional culture that encourages conformity and marginalises dissent; disturbing evidence of anti-intellectualism among educational leaders.
Against this background, a limited ‘refresh’ of CfE is unlikely to provide the catalyst for meaningful change that is required.
Some fifteen years after its inception, and a mere four years after a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recommended the creation of ‘a new narrative’, the policy has been ‘refreshed’ (not to be taken to mean ‘revised’). The result is a digital document reinforcing many of the original principles, but with some new advice designed to assist teachers as they continue to grapple with the challenges of the reform programme.
The centrality of learning
In assessing the merits of this latest addition to the official output on CfE, it is important to set it against the policy’s central aims. CfE sought to ‘put learners at the heart of education’. Learning was conceived as a lifelong process which involved a ‘learner journey’. Teachers were encouraged to engage in ‘career-long professional learning’. Few people would question this emphasis on the learning of pupils and teachers, but what about the learning of those who devised and developed the policy in the first place?
What evidence is there in the ‘refreshed’ narrative that the people who exercise power in Scottish education – politicians, civil servants, inspectors, directors of education, senior staff in important national organisations such as Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and the General Teaching Council for Scotland – have been seriously engaged in their own ‘learner journey’? Is there much that is different from the avalanche of earlier publications that caused confusion and anxiety among the teaching force?
Style and content
…a triumph of presentation over substance, or a welcome break from jargon?
The new document is mercifully short, no doubt a reaction to criticisms about the impossibility of keeping up with the endless flow of material that marked the first ten years of the programme. Moreover, its presentation has clearly been influenced by graphic techniques designed to make the content easily comprehensible. There is extensive use of colour and visual effects; for example, a lightbulb image is used to accompany the phrase ‘knowing the big ideas’. Pop-up boxes enable the reader to access additional explanatory material. One critic has referred to this reliance on the visual as a triumph of presentation over substance, a drift in the direction of ‘infantilising’ policy. A more charitable explanation would be that it is an attempt to get away from dense passages of jargon-ridden text that run the risk of inducing a state of catatonic stupor.
All of the organisations that have contributed to the production of the document (a total of twenty) have their logos included at the foot of every page. Readers can judge whether this is more likely to enable them to claim some credit or to share the blame.
Both continuity and change are evident in the content. The four capacities (successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens) are re-affirmed, as are the four contexts for learning (curriculum areas; the ethos and life of the school; interdisciplinary learning; opportunities for personal achievement). Similarly, the importance attached to different types of skills in earlier documents (skills for learning, for life, for work) is confirmed. There is a welcome encouragement to be open ‘to new thinking and ideas’ and to see the value of ‘learner networks’, in which professionals can learn from each other.
There is also some new terminology influenced by the findings of research studies carried out by Professor Mark Priestley and colleagues at Stirling University. The complexities of ‘curriculum making’ and ‘teacher agency’ are acknowledged. This can be seen as an admission that top-down policy directives are unlikely to be effective. Successful reforms need to provide teachers with opportunities to develop their understanding of the principles underlying new policies, thereby helping to build capacity within the system as a whole. Similarly, teacher agency is not simply a matter of enhancing individual confidence: it requires change to the structural and cultural conditions within which teachers work.
Learning from the CfE experience
It is too early to say how helpful classroom teachers will find the ‘refreshed’ CfE narrative. An earlier attempt in 2016 by the (then) Chief Inspector of Education to simplify the key messages of the reform had limited success. This reinforces the need to address the question of what educational leaders themselves have learned from the experience of managing CfE. There are several areas of potential learning. Right at the start, the opportunity to learn from previous work on curriculum development (by Lawrence Stenhouse) and educational reform (by Stephen Ball) was missed. Both these writers offered powerful insights into the challenges of bringing about major changes.
Furthermore, the conceptual clarity of the original proposals was insufficiently tested, leading to later problems of interpretation. Communication with teachers, parents and other stakeholders was variable in quality. Winning the hearts and minds of teachers is an essential prerequisite of successful reform. The soft, feel-good language of CfE may have had emotional appeal, but it did not stand up to tough intellectual scrutiny. Teachers who remained unconvinced may have shown outward ‘strategic compliance’, while privately adopting various methods of resistance. Again, critics were marginalised or ignored, in line with the long-standing tradition of the Scottish educational establishment to assume it knows best. Calls for systematic data collection and for the commissioning of independent evaluation were, for a long time, ignored. The OECD report of 2015 stated that it could only offer a ‘review’ of CfE, not a full evaluation, since the necessary data to carry out the latter was simply not available.
Behind all of these issues, lie uncomfortable questions about the effectiveness of the shifting personnel who were responsible for the project. These included largely invisible civil servants acting on behalf of successive government ministers, as well as a confusing cast list of senior staff in Learning and Teaching Scotland and its successor body, Education Scotland. One civil servant involved in the early stages of CfE recently attracted brief media attention on his retirement from a senior role in the Brexit negotiations. Perhaps his earlier experience of a messy operation in Scottish education offered a good preparation for the chaos and farce of Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Despite the many problems that arose, the major institutions of Scottish education remain intact
Is it likely that these learning opportunities will be taken up by Scotland’s educational leaders or will they sail on regardless, convinced of their competent stewardship of the system? Their powers of narrative privilege enable them to write the official version of events and to dismiss alternative accounts. They may acknowledge that some things could have been done better but they are unlikely to admit serious culpability. After all, too many political and professional reputations depend on CfE being presented (if not perceived) as a success.
Despite the many problems that arose, the major institutions of Scottish education remain intact (indeed the remit of Education Scotland has been extended and strengthened). Scottish educational bureaucracy has shown itself to be capable of withstanding short-term setbacks and embarrassments. Keen observers of recent Scottish educational history would be able to cite earlier cases of professional protectionism. After the examination crisis of 2000, for example, the inspectorate was held partly responsible for the botched introduction of Higher Still. Inspectors experienced some temporary loss of influence: within a few years, however, they had managed to reinstate themselves as powerful players in the policy community.
Ministers may come and go, but members of the leadership class simply keep their heads down and plan for better times. A similar pattern has been evident in CfE. The ‘refreshed’ narrative can be seen, at one level, as an attempt at professional rehabilitation. Institutional complacency continues to reign supreme in Scottish education.
Seven reasons why Scottish education is under-performing by Walter Humes is one of the most read articles on Sceptical Scot.
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Images of Forth Valley College and Peterhead Academy via Scottish Government Flickr album CC BY-SA 2.0