Curriculum for Excellence: What now?

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It is clear that there have been a number of problems with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. Headteacher John Rutter gives us his ‘state of the nation’ and considers what now needs to happen

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is now eight-years-old. The first few cohorts have been through the examination process and received their qualifications.

The system is here to stay and yet we are still heading through many revisions, year-on-year changes to the exams and in-course assessments and worries from teachers that they are still not getting it right and not able to do the best for their pupils.

Many aspects of the curriculum continue to be vague and open to misinterpretation, yet some of our governing bodies seem to carry on with the illusion that all is well. So if the system is failing us, what needs to be done to make things better?

In recent years, curriculum policy in many countries has been subject to a distinct shift in emphasis. Some, but not all, have moved away from a centralised direction of content “to curricular models which emphasise local flexibility in curriculum making (which position) teachers as autonomous developers of the curriculum” (Priestley & Drew 2016).

This is certainly the case in Scotland.

Here, and in other examples as diverse as Kenya and Wales, education authorities are moving away from a solely knowledge-based curriculum towards one based on competencies and skills. England, meanwhile, appears to be heading in the opposite direction, with central control and a highly prescriptive curriculum.

I am no expert on the English curriculum but, while helping with the text for a GCSE textbook, I came to realise how different it is from our own. Many of the pupil-centred, skills-based activities I submitted were rejected for ones that were more knowledge-based instead.

We have some serious problems with what we are currently offering in Scotland but, even so, I can’t help thinking that trying to cure 21st century problems with Victorian solutions is not going to work out well.

Meanwhile, even before it began, CfE was plagued with its own problems. There was criticism from teachers and their unions that it was vague, particularly regarding the “outcomes and experiences” that all pupils were meant to go through in the course of their journey from the age of three to 18.

Fears were expressed that this vagueness would mean a lack of clarity in what was expected of teachers in the classroom and, particularly, in how the progress and attainment of pupils was assessed. Originally, senior pupils undergoing exam qualifications were expected to pass a number of unit assessments throughout the year.

This led to a multitude of mini-exams, sometimes concentrated in short bursts across a range of different subjects.

Teachers had no time to teach anything apart from how to pass tests, bureaucracy went crazy and stress levels rose for everyone – pupils, parents and teachers.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), bombarded with complaints and criticisms, responded with revamped qualifications. Course content changed so teachers had to spend more time rewriting courses they had thought would be stable for a good few years.

The length of exams was increased, penalising pupils – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who historically perform worse in exams anyway. The justification was that the increased length was needed to ensure full coverage, but only a sample of the course can be covered by any limited time assessment. No matter the length of the exam, pupils still have to learn everything as they never know what will be included.

So, as we appear still to be in a state of flux with CfE and, in particular, with the part of it known as the Broad General Education, which runs through the first three years of secondary school, what can we do to improve the design of the curriculum? And what can education authorities in other countries who have sufficient will and vision learn from the mistakes we have made along the way?

CfE calls for a shift in practice towards more pupil-centred and individual approaches to education. Personalisation and Choice were two of the most important words highlighted in the original design documents.

Together with this is an expectation that teachers will be the developers of the curriculum and the agents of change – adapting the curriculum to local contexts and local needs.

However, it is not easy to be an agent of change when you work in an action culture and where there is an expectation of accountability on a year-by-year basis. In essence there is a very short window of opportunity to get it right for the learners who are in front of you at the start of the year and looking to achieve in their exams at the end of it.

Teachers always want to do the best for their children and so it is difficult to take risks when you may only have the one chance with the pupils you teach.

Research from Stirling University (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015) shows that teachers have broadly welcomed the ideas and philosophy behind CfE, but that there have been myriad implementation issues which have held back its development and have had a negative impact on both teachers’ enthusiasm and motivation, including:

  • Lack of clarity and clear guidance.
  • Risks related to the impact of CfE on pupils.
  • Funding, staffing and resource issues in an age of austerity.
  • Teacher workload and morale.
  • Teacher attitude and confidence in the difference CfE makes to their pupils.
  • CPD, collaborative working and specialist subject working groups (and their decline).
  • Leadership and departmental support in providing a clear vision of where CfE is going.

It is clear that there have been a number of problems with the implementation of CfE. To the list I would also add the SQA’s lack of imagination in revamping the assessment system to reflect the new curriculum.

It is now possible for pupils to spend the first nine years of schooling undergoing active, competency and skills-based learning, only to enter S4 and be told how much knowledge retention they have to pack into the next five terms (including the two-term dash to Higher) and how this will determine the rest of their lives.

This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency so that qualifications reflect the true learning and potential of pupils as they leave school.

Above all, however, if we are to really make a difference in CfE there needs to be the active involvement of teachers in its design. We need to look more holistically at what children are learning and what knowledge they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Content is, therefore, key but delivery through traditional subjects may not be the best way of doing this. A thorough review – going back to basics and looking at the four capacities, the outcomes for subjects (what knowledge and skills we need from each of them even if not necessarily taught in the time-worn way) and the educational values we wish to instil in pupils – would go some way to figuring out what exactly it is we need in order to produce an educated population.

However, what we have been missing – and what may have been missing from the start – is the overriding condition expressed by Mark Priestley of Stirling University, a leading researcher into the successes of CfE, that there can be no curriculum development without teacher development. Meaningful CPD, collaboration and moderation of schemes and assessments is needed on a grand scale. Whether this can be done in the current climate of workload overload and low staff morale is a moot point altogether.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School. Read his previous articles for SecEd at


  • Teacher Agency: An ecological approach, Priestley, Biesta & Robinson (2015) Bloomsbury
  • Teachers as agents of curriculum change: Closing the gap between purpose and practice, Priestley & Drew, European Conference for Educational Research, Dublin, September 2016:


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