It has been more than a decade since the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), a curriculum spanning ages 3-18, which aimed to better prepare children and young people for the workplace and citizenship in 21st century Scotland. The curriculum has been widely praised worldwide, but its implementation has been controversial in Scotland.

New research at the University of Stirling, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, explored how the curriculum is made and experienced by young people and teachers in secondary schools across Scotland. It has also examined the effects of CfE on schools and students.

The results are sobering. We found evidence of curriculum narrowing: a reduction in the number of National 5 qualifications taken by S4 pupils in comparison to the number of Standard grade qualifications taken in the past, notably in Social Subjects, Expressive Arts, and Modern Languages. We also saw significant differences in subject selection between schools and year groups. One of the starkest findings was that this narrowing of choice was stronger in areas of social and economic disadvantage.

What does this mean for Scotland’s young people? Put simply, curriculum narrowing has a detrimental effect on young people’s outcomes. And this exacerbates existing disparities in educational opportunities.

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Our study – believed to be the most comprehensive yet of curriculum provision in Scotland’s secondary schools – shows that those schools with more students taking National 5s in S4 (in other words, a broader curriculum) had larger enrolments in Highers in S5 and Advanced Highers in S6. Conversely, schools with a narrower curriculum, as well as schools in deprived areas, were more likely to have delayed entry to National 5s and Highers.

A broader curriculum in S4 is linked to better performance on the National 5 qualifications, higher scores on tests for international students, such as PISA English and Maths, and higher scores on the OECD measures of global competences. A narrower curriculum is linked to less positive outcomes after leaving school, especially in terms of Higher Education entry. Given that schools in disadvantaged areas are more likely to have a narrow curriculum in S4, this last finding is particularly concerning.

The Curriculum for Excellence aimed to increase the breadth of education. So why has it had the opposite effect?

We found that curriculum-making in schools is largely shaped by demands for better attainment data – especially in National Qualifications. Worryingly, the focus is on performance rather than the pupil, with less focus on helping an individual to become an educated person in a modern, complex society. In short, we found a culture of performativity in Scotland’s secondary schools, with teachers under pressure to reach attainment levels.

So, what is the answer? We think the findings highlight the need for further research into the impact of curriculum narrowing, and for policy and practice changes that will emphasise meaningful purposes and principles to better prepare our young people for their futures.

Dr Marina Shapira is Associate Professor in Sociology and Professor Mark Priestley is Professor of Education at the University of Stirling