Curriculum for Excellence: Kicking a hornet's nest

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A letter to a newspaper written by a school girl has sparked a debate over standards in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and new National examinations. Alex Wood looks at what the profession itself is saying.

There’s a flurry of debate in Scottish education over standards. The suggestion is that they are being dumbed down. The surprise is that the debate’s catalyst was a letter to the press from a school student.

S4 student, Flora Scarabello, wrote to The Herald last month (on February 4) stating that the new National qualifications “are not nearly as challenging or as rigorous as the previous Standard Grades or Intermediates” and asserted that lowered grade boundaries have made exams progressively easier.

Teachers have been cautious about openly criticising Curriculum for Excellence (CfE): no wonder, given the resolutely positive spin being put on CfE by both the Scottish government and local authorities.

In speaking however to experienced, committed teachers, all normally open to change, concerns over standards have been almost ubiquitous. Many have echoed Flora’s sentiments. 

One depute head, a former maths teacher, explained to me: “I loved the ideas behind CfE, the inter-disciplinary learning, the greater depth of learning, not having to teach to the test, cooperative learning, but when it boils down to it, I’m just teaching the same maths I have taught since O Grade. 

“I’m teaching it a little differently and, I hope, a little more interestingly – the students are more active learners – but I cannot see why we needed a new exam system. We could easily have tweaked the old exams and not gone to all this trouble.

“In 2008, the principal teacher for maths at my former school went on maternity leave. I took her credit class for three weeks before exam leave. Before she left, she told me they were all on track for a 1. I hadn’t taught maths for about six years. I took them the first day and thought that none of them would sniff a 1. The second day, I gave them the previous year’s paper and realised they would all get a 1. Enough said. And that was in 2008.”

A former local authority maths advisor agrees about CfE’s strengths but also worries about lack of rigour in assessment. 

“I’m very positive about CfE. I still see it as an opportunity to become more excellent, though I question whether the system is capable of it, with lack of rigour in assessment devoted to better learning being a contributing factor.”

The issue of standards in maths returned last year when the Scottish Qualification Authority’s former maths principal examiner stated that that year’s Higher exam was the easiest ever. The problem, however, far surpasses maths.

One experienced social subjects curriculum leader explained her experience: “I’m absolutely sure that what we ask pupils to do under exam conditions has become easier and easier and this process started long before CfE was introduced. 

“Just exactly how easy the National 5 exam proves to be will depend, as Flora points out, where grade boundaries are drawn. I think they are norm-referenced anyway and therefore the numbers at each grade are very open to ‘political’ considerations.”

Walter Humes, visiting professor of education at Stirling University, echoes the concerns over “political” considerations.

“It is high time that the complacent rhetoric of Scottish education (“partnership”, “consultation”, “consensus”, etc) was exposed for the sham it is. For too long the teachers who have got on in the system have been deferential and conformist: we need challenging thinkers who ask hard questions.”

Yet the hardest aspect of this article was not securing educationalists’ views: it was that no teacher or education official currently employed in Scotland who was critical of the system, was willing to offer a view with their name attached.

One subject recently introduced at Higher was dance. The Higher dance exam is about to replace essays with presentations in formats such as PowerPoint or blogs. 

The Higher will test competency in two dance areas, each requiring a performance of a high standard, but the majority of written work previously required is being eliminated. An increased emphasis on practical skills creates a down-grading of theoretical understanding. 

There is of course a very different view of examinations. Terry Wrigley, visiting professor of education at Leeds Metropolitan University put it thus: “I do see such examinations as a limited and partial form of assessment. Finland has no exams at age 16; Norway gives late notice to schools of which subject it will formally examine that year for moderation and evaluation purposes (different in each school).

“Germany until very recently had no exams until the Abitur at age 19, which was itself examined by the school. We need to balance exams with (moderated) teacher assessment with Queensland-style ‘rich tasks’ at various points in S4 to S6.”

Danny Murphy, a former headteacher at Lornshill Academy, also poses an alternative: “Some of the things being tested are different so comparability is difficult to assess – but there is a good case for saying that standards are not dropping, just different things being prioritised.”

One senior educational advisor to a major local authority insisted that the real issue is courses being delivered on the hoof, courses being changed on the hoof and staff and students being unclear about standards.

Neal McGowan, a former Scottish headteacher, who has also led schools in England and China, has recently viewed Scottish education from a distance but warns that reflections from former colleagues in Scotland suggest “that things are not great and that the knowledge and academic progress of the students is a significant challenge within the CfE approach”.

He also states that several of Scotland’s private schools have ditched National 4 and 5 exams for GCSEs because of concerns at their content and assessment.

Accusations of “dumbing-down” create an emotion-strewn debate. 

No-one to whom I have spoken likes the Gove approach south of the border, yet many fear a gradual erosion of academic rigour. 

It may be that the greater contemporary emphasis on skills and lesser emphasis on knowledge have yet to become established, although even here there is a debate: how can higher order skills be developed if core knowledge is abandoned?

Flora Scarabello has certainly kicked a hornet’s nest in Scottish education.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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