The Scottish Curriculum: A Beginner's Guide

There is no universally agreed meaning for the term "curriculum" as applied to the education of children and young people. In academic circles it is a highly contested concept, and covers everything experienced by children and young people, within or without formal education. To an average parent, I guess it means "the stuff schools are going to teach children and young people". From this perspective, Scotland has no national curriculum. Scotland has no national framework which spells out explicitly what knowledge schools should teach children and young people. We used to have one, called 5-14, but it was decided that this was too prescriptive.

Instead, the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence has a series of statements called the Experiences and Outcomes, which make vague, implicit references to the knowledge we expect young people to acquire, wrapped up in highly general statements about what we expect young people to be able to do, and what we expect them to experience. The general vibe in our curriculum is that specific facts are unimportant - temporary stepping-stones to be skipped over on the way to developing generic transferable skills such as "creativity" and "problem solving". The curriculum is blind to the widely recognised fact that such generic, transferable skills do not exist.

Here is an example, from the Social Studies E&Os:
I can explain why a group of people from beyond Scotland settled here in the past and discuss the impact they have had on the life and culture of Scotland. [SOC 3-03a]
When teachers across Scotland first saw these E&Os they were, of course, aghast, and began creating local "schemes of work" or "progression frameworks" which did actually spell out what they were going to teach. In some areas, this work - the work of actually creating a curriculum - was undertaken at a local authority level, whereas in others it was left to individual schools, departments and even teachers.

As far as I am aware, no work has ever been undertaken nationally to audit these local curricula. No one knows the extent to which pupils across Scotland are being taught the same or different things.

Thankfully, some sanity was restored when it came to the creation of the new qualifications (the Nationals and rewritten Highers) which pupils sit from the age of 16. These eventually spelled out content, albeit somewhat sparsely and grudgingly amongst the pages of talk about the development of higher-order thinking skills:

Teachers were then able to refine the curricula they had created for younger pupils, by working backwards from these somewhat-clarified endpoints. The sparse nature of the content documentation explains why it is considered so valuable for Scottish teachers to become exam markers - they are then privy to more detailed discussions about exactly what constitutes assessable knowledge, what constitutes a valid explanation etc. The rest of us have to reverse engineer this detailed information from the published marking schemes of past papers.

Latterly, John Swinney, the Education Minister, has attempted to streamline Scottish Curriculum documentation by the creation of "Benchmarks". These are supposed to be more explicit and useful than the E&Os. Judge for yourself - here are the relevant benchmarks relating to the Social Studies E&O above:
  • Provides at least two simple explanations as to why a group of people from beyond Scotland settled here 
  • Describes at least two impacts immigrants have had on life and culture of Scotland.
To describe this approach as problematic would be charitable. We are still left wondering which immigrants, which explanations and which impacts we should teach. Our "curriculum" is mute.

With the publication of the benchmarks, the politicians now seem to feel our curriculum is fixed, and we are moving on to a major reorganisation of governance structures for schools. We are fiddling while Rome burns.

Popular posts from this blog

Assessment Through The Looking Glass

And what if we don't achieve our dreams?