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Where next for Curriculum for Excellence?

Today, I took part in a seminar in Edinburgh which focused on Scotland's curriculum and the priorities for the new Education Bill currently being prepared for parliamentary approval by the Scottish Government. Entitled, 'Next steps for Curriculum for Excellence - supporting teachers, tackling the attainment gap and priorities for the Education Bill' it was held at the Royal Society Edinburgh, and featured a range of educational and political speakers, starting with Graham Donaldson as someone heavily involved at the outset of CfE and who is now helping to shape the new curriculum for Wales. Graham is also a member of the International Council of Education Advisors to the Scottish government.

He started the day with an overview of CfE as it was originally envisioned and proposed, as well as a consideration of where we were now at. He said that it had been acknowledged by the OECD, academics and other countries that the approach encapsulated in CfE was one that many sought to emulate. He cited Singapore, Australia and Wales as examples of systems who were looking to better develop curricular and learning experiences, so that they better prepared their learners for the shifting sands of rapid change in society and economies. He pointed out that much of the change agenda was linked to the technological changes that were taking place, and which continue apace. He also believed that change in education would be gathering more pace over the next ten to fifteen years, to match the technological developments happening, and that we should be prepared for this. I queried this during the Q and A session afterwards, because it is my belief that such a scenario is even more unstainable than where we are now, and that in fact we need to slow down, in order to deepen and embed meaningful change. Another key point he asked us to consider was that the curriculum needs to keep developing, if we are to maintain our place in the vanguard of system development. he queried whether we were in danger of slipping behind others, and asked us to consider the danger of us just getting better at the wrong things.

There then followed a mix of speakers, providing a range of perspectives on CfE. I was one of these. A full report on all that was said will emerge in the next week or two, but in this post I wish to give a view of my own input, and the points I tried to make in a very limited times slot of just 5 minutes per speaker. As I was the last one on, I think I had less time to get my main messages across, so hopefully this can do that, whether you were at the seminar or not.

I began by stating that I remain a supporter of CfE as it was originally envisioned and set out. However, like many others, I am not a fan of what it has become in many instances. For many headteachers, and teachers, the key issues were as follows. What it has become. The current iteration of CfE is so far from what was originally envisioned, to be almost unrecognisable from those founding principles and philosophy set out by its architects. It possibly resembles too much the previous 5-14 curriculum than we would like, with all the associated problems. Bureaucracy. Schools, and teachers, in all sectors are awash with paperwork to such an extent that they have little time to think about and create exciting and engaging learning experiences for learners. This has come at them from local authorities, Education Scotland, the HMIE, Scottish Government, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and many others. We should not ignore the fact that a lot of this paperwork and bureaucracy has been created and generated by schools themselves as well. Micromanagement of something that was supposed to be grown from the ground up. Because systems never changed to match the new curriculum, CfE was shoe-horned into what was already there. So all the different points in the system exerted their 'control' functions with a plethora of 'support' and 'advice', which quickly turned into mico-management of the whole process. We didn't spend enough time at the outset up-skilling school leaders and teachers in a new way of thinking and being, resulting in some chaotic interpretations, which created the space and opportunity for micro-management. The Es and Os and Benchmarks. Designed to help and support, as well as ensure consistency, these have become a manifestation of the bureaucratic tendencies and the desire for micro-management by some in the system. They are promoting a tick-box approach to development in many schools, as well as another flurry of paperwork for teachers and school leaders to deal with. Accountability measures have come to dominate. Having teachers and schools 'prove' everything they have done, and are doing, has come at the cost of improving what they do. A lot of what I have already identified, has accountability at its core, not the development of learning and teaching. Teaching still being viewed as a technical activity. All of the above, as well as other actions, and actors, in the system, still view teaching as a technical activity, with teachers and schools needing to be told exactly what to do, how and what resources to use, rather than the complex professional activity it really is. They also portray learning as a simple linear progression.This linked to my final point which was about mindsets. The issue of the fixed mindsets that existed, and still exist, both within schools and beyond them, had never been addressed. I think this was a bigger problem outside of schools, who were trying to implement CfE as originally intended, but who were thwarted by the mindsets and practices of those beyond the schools, who were still fixed in the 5-14 curriculum and associated practices.

I then asked, is there another way? I referred to 'Flip The System UK', edited by Lucy Rycroft-Smith and JL Dutaut, and 'Practitioner Enquiry' authored by myself. Both of these focused on another way of promoting school and system development by harnessing and unleashing the power and agency of teachers. I identified that it had been noted by McKinsey, Hattie and others, that teachers were the key to system and school development, therefore teachers needed to be supported, encouraged and trusted to develop what everyone was looking for.

This would require the following focuses. We need to develop true teacher agency. The ability of teachers to make decisions and take action needs to stretch beyond their immediate classrooms and practice, and needs to become part of all school and system cultures. Some teachers, and many in the system, may find this difficult, but it has to be done if we are to release the power that already resides in every school and across the system. We need to help them develop adaptive expertise, again not just in their practice, but also across schools and systems. They need to be supported to develop the skills and aptitudes necessary for high levels of reflection and adaptability. Connected to this is teacher leadership. Leadership is crucial in any school or system, but it should not be confined to those with formal leadership titles and roles. We need to flatten hierarchies so that the system and schools are more democratic, with all valued and able to contribute. This will lead to the development of true system leadership practices and understandings. By developing self-improving teachers and schools, we are helping to develop a self-improving system. Collaboration and collaborative practices need to encouraged and supported. This will support all and help develop everyone's practice. Next we need to create curriculum experiences that are grounded in local contexts. Our schools need to reflect the local community and learning should be linked to these wherever possible. This should happen at a local, area and national level. Finally, I asked for there to be more trust and true support for our teachers and our schools. We need to stop them having to spend so much of their time proving to others what they are doing, instead of improving for the betterment of all their learners.

I then shared some recent quotes from leading  academics and educationalist, that I thought reflected what I had been saying, or gave us cause to stop and think.

Mark Priestley said on his blog earlier this year,

'The  new Celtic curricula are grounded in specific purposes of education, which provide a clear starting point for schools to develop a curriculum. In Scotland these are articulated as attributes and capabilities, set out under four headings, successful learners, responsible citizens, effective contributors and confident individuals.'

'I believe that is greatly preferable to a curriculum apparently devoid of purposes and framed primarily around content decided by national policy makers.'

Alma Harris said on Twitter in 2017,

'Teachers are not the problem in our education systems, they are the solution.'

In 'Leading system transformation' 2010 she also noted that,

'To change an entire system undoubtedly requires leadership of a different nature, order and scale...the importance of developing leadership at all levels in order to be successful.'

In Teacher learning and Leadership' published in late 2017, Lieberman, Campbell and Yashinka wrote,

'Improvement cannot be simply driven down by a system into classrooms, nor cannot be based on individual practices that are not shared and supported more widely.'

'When educators', policy makers', and researchers' voices are heard and when these groups learn to work together, there is tremendous potential for the good of the students and the professionalization of teaching.'

My presentation ended with two conclusions for the audience and policy makers to consider, which I feel will make a massive difference to teachers and what we are trying to achieve. These were,

'Our focus has been out of kilter, and perhaps still is. We are still too focused on systems and structures and not enough on equipping and supporting our teachers to co-create a curriculum that reflects the four principles of CfE, in order to deliver something that works for all learners as well as the system as a whole.'


'Improvements cannot just be mandated from above, they need collaboration and trust between all partners.'

Having read all this again, I can see why I might have been struggling to cover all these points in the time allocated. But, hopefully, you have a clearer sense of what I was trying to say.

There was a lively question and answer session at the end, and some more important points raised from the floor. The importance of early years and pre school was mentioned and talked about, especially learning through play and the impact that standardised testing may be having on P1 learning and well-being. Questions were raised about primary education and the development of literacy and numeracy as discreet areas of study. We also talked about winning the hearts and minds of teachers, and my belief that improvement cannot be mandated or forced from on high. In my view, what does work is the creation of deep learning cultures and an ethos, built on trust, which encourages and expects everyone to keep developing and growing their practice, informed by evidence and data.

Before I left, I had the chance to speak to a few people over coffee. A common comment was that we seem to have been having the same conversations for thirteen years and more, as well as how do we change all this and make the improvements that are still required? In truth, there are no easy answers or panaceas, but we are being dishonest with ourselves, our learners and their parents, if we do not expose these issues to debate and scrutiny, so that we can find a better way forward. In any learning, making mistakes is a key part of the process, as long as you learn from these to improve what you do. A culture of trust and mutual respect is crucial.


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