December 2010


  • All torque?
    Vocational education is the subject of a major government review but Michael Gove has already given the go-ahead to one new model for 14-19s. Daniel Cremin explains the genesis of the ‘university technical college’ and examines the initiative’s aims and ambitions. More
  • A question of equity
    Sir Peter Lampl has made widening educational opportunities for young people from ‘non-privileged backgrounds’ his philanthropic goal. He talks to Julie Nightingale about why he thinks the coalition government’s university funding strategy will leave Britain out in the cold economically. More
  • Open minds
    With the demise of Becta and cancellation of Building Schools for the Future, question marks hang over the future of ICT development. But, argues Paul Haigh, there is an easier, more cost effective option with open source software and tools. More
  • Apply yourself
    Even senior leaders make routine errors on job applications, jeopardising their chances of promotion. Richard Fawcett examines some common pitfalls and gives suggestions to make your letter and application stand out. More
  • Future focus
    While the coalition government in England prepares for a major review of the curriculum, with a focus on ‘traditional’ subjects, Scotland is in the midst of introducing an interdisciplinary Curriculum for Excellence which runs from ages 3-18. Is this the Holy Grail of an integrated, coherent, flexible curriculum? Brian Cooklin explores the detail. More
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While the coalition government in England prepares for a major review of the curriculum, with a focus on ‘traditional’ subjects, Scotland is in the midst of introducing an interdisciplinary Curriculum for Excellence which runs from ages 3-18. Is this the Holy Grail of an integrated, coherent, flexible curriculum? Brian Cooklin explores the detail.

Future focus

"A coherent, relevant curriculum which encompasses all current developments and requirements, embraces learning and teaching strategies yet allows flexibility for personal choice and enrichment.”

 This is education’s Holy Grail and it is precisely what Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) aims to provide.
Historically, like many education systems, the Scottish one has suffered from reactive approaches, dramatic shifts in political decisions, prescription and a lack of foresight or strategic policies.

As one parent said to me at a parents’ evening: “When are you people going to get your act together? In primary school and early secondary we have a 5-14 curriculum with level A at the bottom and level F at the top. Then it’s Standard Grade, graded 1-7, followed by Intermediate and Higher courses graded A-C and a D is a near miss!”

He had a point. Each change to the curriculum was brought in separately and seemed to have little connection to the next stage, let alone clarity about assessment.

To tackle this lack of unity, the previous Scottish Executive initiated a ‘national conversation’ and then a debate about education to identify what was really important and to reach consensus.

What emerged was the Curriculum for Excellence, aimed at providing a coherent curriculum for ages 3-18 with the emphasis on a broad general education up to the end of S3 (third year). The objective is to enrich learners’ experiences and prepare both for the senior phase and for national qualifications.

Less prescriptive

The curriculum framework is far less detailed and prescriptive, to give teachers ‘professional space’ to meet the needs of their pupils. This can be liberating or frightening, depending on your perspective.

Experiences and outcomes exist for each curriculum area (see bottom of page) and these are the foundation for courses. They recognise the importance of the quality and nature of the learning experience and achieving active engagement, motivation and depth of learning.

An outcome represents what is to be achieved. These are often expressed as general statements to allow maximum flexibility for a teacher devising a course and meeting pupils’ needs.

For example, at the early level of literacy (pre-school and year 1), in understanding, analysing and evaluating, the outcome statement is: “To help me understand stories and other texts, I ask questions and link what I am learning with what I already know.”

At the fourth level (average 15 year-old) there is more detail: “I can show my understanding of what I listen to or watch by giving detailed, evaluative comments with evidence about the content and form of short and extended texts.”

The problem for many teachers is how to do that and to be sure that pupils are getting the same experience consistently across the country.

There are four broad levels:

  • early, completed by most pupils by the end of year 1
  • first level by the end of year 4
  • second by year 7
  • third and fourth levels, covered by year 10

After that the senior phase kicks in with new national qualifications. National 4, as it is currently called, will be offered as a completely internally assessed qualification in year 11. National 5 is offered in the same year as an external exam for more able pupils.

Access courses for less able pupils remain an option, while Higher and Advanced Higher continue with some amendments for the more able.

Interdisciplinary learning

All teachers are responsible for literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing, which is a departure from their traditional subject-based approach. This leads to the aspect of interdisciplinary learning where teachers are encouraged to make connections with what children have learned in other subjects.

A variety of approaches has been taken to develop these connections: thematic weeks, days, afternoons, even the abandonment of discrete subjects altogether to deliver courses based on themes and projects.

This may be fun and enjoyable, yet there are concerns about depth of learning and whether this approach can lead to superficial knowledge of many aspects without the deeper understanding necessary to pursue qualifications later.

For pupils, the aims are summarised in four capacities. We are striving to produce successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Translating that into action and a positive experience for all children is the challenge.

The emphasis is on personalisation and choice to allow pupils to follow a curriculum that is relevant for them. This builds on, for example, the extensive work undertaken to provide vocational courses and activities. Equally, such vocational skills and courses needed to be provided for all pupils when, for a long time, they have been seen as the preserve of the less able and disengaged.

National Assessment Resource

In terms of assessment, the ‘assessment is for learning’ techniques have gained wide credence and are fundamental to the programme’s success. However, national testing has gone and has been replaced by an online National Assessment Resource which can be added to by any teacher by offering any assessment devised by them.

There is a quality assurance system to kitemark it but it is not benchmarked, nor offered as a national standard. Moderation is the order of the day with subject departments agreeing standards, first internally, then with other schools, both primary and secondary.

The frustration for teachers revolves around the lack of clarity and security about the assessment and levels.

The levels are very broad and children are to be described as: ‘developing’ (if they have just started that course or are only managing some outcomes), ‘consolidating’ (if they have coped with the majority) and ‘secure’ (if they have mastered all the necessary outcomes and can apply that knowledge in different circumstances).

How does a teacher know what ‘secure’, ‘consolidating’ and ‘developing’ look like? How do they know the assessment they have devised is consistent with the one another teacher has created in John O’Groats?

The general wording of the curriculum is both an asset and a difficulty. Overall, teachers are developing courses to the best of their ability and building on what they know works, but already the experiences children are having are very different. When children move schools, it will be very hard to replicate their previous experience. We are assured that this does not matter; only the quality of the experience counts.

Without doubt, the Curriculum for Excellence is an ambitious, thoughtful and strategic approach to improving teaching and learning, including all the recent developments in enterprise, citizenship, creativity and active learning. Will it raise achievement and attainment and be the answer to high-quality education in the 21st century? It remains to be seen.

  • Brian Cooklin is headteacher of Stonelaw High School, Rutherglen, Glasgow and past president of School Leaders Scotland.

Curriculum for Excellence

There are eight curriculum areas:

  • expressive arts
  • health and wellbeing
  • languages
  • mathematics
  • religious and moral education
  • sciences
  • social studies
  • technologies

Each is governed by a set of principles and practices which describe:

  • the purposes of learning
  • how the curriculum is organised
  • features of effective learning and teaching
  • broad aspects of assessment
  • connections with other curriculum areas

Future focus