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Butterfly or dysfunctional caterpillar?

The Curriculum for Excellence was designed to be a transformation. Instead it looks too much like the old system with bits bolted on. Just don’t blame the teachers.

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the flagship curricular initiative of successive Scottish Executives and Governments since 2004. Recent investigations into the CfE have been uniformly disappointing but unsurprising. Reports from teacher organisations, parents groups and from the University of Stirling have found firstly, that primary schools are more advanced down the road of CfE than secondary schools in general; secondly, that there are wide differences between secondary schools; and thirdly that there is widespread worry amongst secondary teachers in general about the approach from S3 onwards.

Similarly to many areas of policy, the CfE started out as a myriad of good ideas, which have to a great extent been corrupted as government, schools and teachers have attempted to fit it into the current structures, without a fundamental rethink of the culture of schooling. As initially conceived, it was to be an attempt to ‘declutter’ the curriculum, encourage teachers to develop cross-subject links, ensure that active learning (a contested concept admittedly) was at the forefront in classes and that the supposed ‘dip’ in S1/2 was challenged.

Most teachers, I think it would be fair to say, welcomed the ideas in principle. We had been shown examples from Scandinavia of teacher/student/parent-led curriculums, where areas of interest, including controversial issues, were added to curriculums in a way that ensured better learning. It seemed an opportunity to move away from the tight control of the 5-14 curriculum, which seemed to straightjacket both teachers and students. Further, schools would be judged by inspection on a much wider area of achievement – how well did they develop young people in the four areas of CfE (successful learners, effective contributors, responsible citizens and confident individuals). A clear steer away from exam-based league table results. Much more rounded, self-directed citizens, with clear understanding of lifelong learning was the aim.

CfE thus had a number of claimed advantages in terms of learning and areas were taken up with enthusiasm in primary schools, where it fitted much better into the cross curricular, inter disciplinary methodology used by many primary teachers, but to be implemented successfully from ages 3-18, there was need for change of overall culture in the secondary schools that unfortunately was not forthcoming. Many secondary schools are doing great work, in particular in terms of whole school initiatives, but key problems were not dealt with. For example, there would be a concentration on deep learning in CfE, as opposed to rote learning – but the new national qualifications and more crucially the ‘Highers’ are still virtually based on rote learning. Teachers and schools (probably correctly) perceived that they would be judged on exam results at Higher and, thus, how would the CfE help this? Stephanie Pace Marshall once wrote that ‘Adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies – it creates awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars. Butterflies are created through transformation’. CfE was designed to be a butterfly; unfortunately it now looks like a dysfunctional caterpillar.

The temptation is to blame teachers. This is a mistake. I think that the problem is much more institutional. Firstly, as I’ve hinted at above, teachers know on what they are judged. Secondly, it always has been and always will be hard to introduce change in a period of deep cuts. CfE in a period of shrinking class sizes would be exciting for many teachers – but as behavioural and learning support reduces, it is less attractive. Thirdly, there has been some innovative CPD in the principles and practices of CfE, but less and less in work time as schools struggle to get supply, an effect of policy which massively reduced short term supply rates. More and more evening and Saturday courses, with tired and/or disgruntled teachers. It is ‘hearts and minds’ that need to be re-won to the ideals – key ideals of education and why many teachers came into education in the first place.

Henry Maitles, School of Education, University of the West of Scotland