SCOTLAND'S new school curriculum is facing its most significant challenge to date.

Introduced amidst widespread expectations that it would raise standards, close the attainment gap between rich and poor and prepare pupils for the rapidly changing world of the future, Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) appears to be struggling with even the basics.

A report by Scotland's Chief Statistician this week found standards of literacy in Scottish primary and secondary schools have fallen since the introduction of CfE. The findings come a year after Scottish primary schools experienced a dramatic decline in standards of numeracy.

The decline has sparked concerns that the direction of CfE away from more formalised testing is resulting in poorer standards.

In 2003, under the former Labour-led Scottish Executive, national testing was scrapped with the rationale that it was better to have a curriculum with the emphasis on teaching rather than testing and because there was a feeling teachers were overly-focused on "teaching to the test" rather than following the interests of pupils.

As a result, the national survey of five to 14 attainment, which tested every pupil in primary school and the first two years of secondary school, was replaced by a system of scientific sampling to track the performance of a proportion of pupils.

At the time, John Wilson, the education director at East Renfrewshire Council, refused to abolish the tests arguing they were the basis of the council's success because fewer children fell through the net with systematic, regular checks which allowed teachers to pick up and tackle problems early.

More recently, a report commissioned by the London-based Centre for Policy Studies this year warned that educational reforms such as those adopted by Scotland would lead to students suffering poorer results.

CfE was inspired partly by the example of Finland which, for years, has been seen as an international success story with the country regularly topping international league tables.

Particular strengths of the Finnish system, adopted under CfE, were a strong focus on the needs of individual pupils, a flexible curriculum with more local decision-making by teachers and fewer formal exams.

However, the report's author, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, said the success of Finland's education system was actually based on an earlier more standardised, traditional approach and recent reforms were actually undermining its success.

But there is an alternative view. The time and effort spent delivering CfE by classroom teachers should not be underestimated, particularly against a backdrop of council cuts and growing class sizes.

In primaries, teachers argue that a range of new initiatives have been introduced which have distracted staff from attempts to focus on literacy and numeracy.

In secondary, the workload and bureaucracy surrounding the introduction of National 4 and National 5 qualifications, which replaced Standard Grades, has taken teachers away from core duties such as the teaching of basic skills. Other believe the growth of poverty in society is to blame.

Until we understand these complex issues more thoroughly we should be cautious about declaring CfE a failure and demanding a return to more testing.