Mark Priestley, director of the Stirling Network for Curriculum Studies

This week sees the publication of the long-awaited OECD review of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). This review comes at a pivotal time for the Scottish school system, arriving as it does following the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has served to interrupt thinking about education in many ways. The OECD review presents, in my view, a much-needed opportunity to rethink the way we make the curriculum in our schools and colleges at this watershed moment.

Critics have suggested that the OECD is not an impartial observer of Scottish education, and there may be some truth in this: CfE is closely aligned with the OECD ideology for curriculum, with its focus on learner-centredness; and the report is, in my opinion, insufficiently critical of some of the design features of CfE, which have contributed to the curriculum becoming a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise for many schools. Moreover, the report is repetitious and framed around quite bland headline recommendations.

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A close reading of the report, especially the supporting text in the final Recommendations section, provides a amore nuanced and critical picture. There are some far-reaching conclusions that, if taken seriously by the Scottish Government, will lead to profound changes to the curriculum, the governance of the system and the ways in which schools work. While the OECD praises many aspects of Scottish education, for example the vision of the curriculum, the professionalism of Scotland’s teachers, and attempts to build curriculum making capacity across the system, the report is highly critical in other respects.

It presents a picture of a lack of a strategic vision for implementing the curriculum, over-complex specification, and a lack of coherence in policy messages. This has served to make the implementation of CfE at best partial in many schools. The report makes many recommendations to address this situation, arguing that changes resulting from the review should take the form of a long-term, strategic approach, rather than a piecemeal ticking-off of recommendations.

The review suggests that Scotland needs not just a ‘refresh’ of the message of CfE, as was the case with the 2019 ‘Refreshed Narrative’, but a fundamental look at the way in which it is framed. This is presented as the need for a single framework document to replace the current smorgasbord of guidance from Education Scotland and other agencies. Such a framework would present a more coherent story about so-called 21st century knowledge, for instance the ‘Big Ideas’ concept-based approach adopted in some countries.

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The OECD advocates a much stronger alignment between the curriculum and senior phase qualifications – particularly a move away from exams towards more school-based, continuous assessment. The review calls for the creation of a single national agency to provide the expertise to steer curriculum reform, evaluate its impact on children and young people, and to keep the curriculum under constant review to ensure that it remains relevant and up to date.

Finally, the review makes the case for better support for schools, including providing dedicated non-teaching time and resources for curriculum making by teachers and other practitioners. This is vital in my view; CfE is premised on the idea that it is developed locally by teachers and yet, to date, many teachers have lacked the time and space to make sense of complex new ideas and develop their practice from them.

The OECD review has drawn some excellent conclusions, drawing upon evidence from within the education system, and it is encouraging to see that the recommendations have been accepted in full by the Scottish Government. This report is a challenge to many long-held assumptions about curriculum in Scotland, but one that I think will be welcomed by many in the education system. Let us not waste this opportunity.

Mark Priestley is the director of the Stirling Network for Curriculum Studies at the University of Stirling