Scotland should consider reforming what have been branded “19th century” assessment practices and needs to address major weaknesses in the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) that leave secondary pupils feeling ill-equipped for specialist study.

The warnings are set out in a landmark review, published today by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which also says young people preparing to sit vital exams find senior school lessons “boring” due to an excessive focus on memorisation and rote-learning.

READ MORE: SQA to be replaced as part of sweeping reforms

"CfE was characterised to the OECD team as a 'clash between 19th century assessment and 21st century curriculum'," the long-awaited document states. 

It proposes a raft of measures and ideas that would mark a decisive shift away from high-stakes exams while also aligning qualifications with “21st century curricula”. These include a more central role for formative and continuous assessment, portfolio approaches, incorporation of teacher set and marked work that is externally moderated by other educators, and oral or practical presentations.

READ MORE: Glasgow education boss says 'trust teacher judgement on grades'

Authored by a team of international experts, it stresses that CfE’s learner-centred philosophy, with its focus on empowering schools to design their own curricula, is “widely supported” and helped position Scotland as a pioneer when it was first formulated over 15 years ago.

But the delayed analysis - which was originally due for release in February and sparked opposition claims of a government cover-up - suggests the curriculum’s roll-out has been hampered by serious flaws that risk undermining pupil progress and confidence.

Among them are the lack of a robust implementation and evaluation strategy, limited data for measuring learner outcomes, excessive clutter due to over-production of new initiatives and documents, and insufficient clarity around key concepts such as the nature, place and function of knowledge.

OECD experts also say consideration should be given to a “specialist stand-alone agency” with responsibility for the curriculum and perhaps assessment.

“The continued efforts made throughout Scotland to develop and improve CfE are a testament to the system’s long-term commitment to educational quality,” their document states. “The effectiveness of these efforts has been lessened, however, by their ad hoc nature and the difficulties in sustaining their coherence in the absence of a structured approach to implementation.”

HeraldScotland: The OECD report is likely to put Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scotland's new Education Secretary, under fresh pressure.The OECD report is likely to put Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scotland's new Education Secretary, under fresh pressure.

The report – which is called Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into The Future - is likely to pile fresh pressure on Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville, who recently announced a wide-ranging review of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and standards body Education Scotland amid growing anger over their performance.

It notes CfE’s vision is to help young people become “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors”, and praises its emphasis on “competencies that prepare a student for life, for personal development, and for the world of work”. Significantly, it says concepts and approaches necessary for achieving the goals of CfE are well consolidated between the ages of three and 15, when children undergo what is called Broad General Education (BGE).

But the document also highlights a failure to align BGE with the Senior Phase in S4-6 and refers to concerns voiced by pupils who were left to face the transition without feeling they had consolidated the "basic knowledge" required for “deeper” learning.

“It may be that the place given to knowledge in CfE is too implicit and that the overall representation of capacities creates the misleading impression that a strong knowledge base is no longer a priority,” it states.

Concerns raised about pupil readiness for in-depth study come after The Herald's analysis of data covering the ten-year period to 2018-19 showed the proportion of school leavers securing at least one pass at Higher or equivalent had fallen in the vast majority of council areas.

READ MORE: Attainment fears as school leaver pass rates 'stall'

Figures indicated the pass rate had been flatlining in many parts of Scotland since around 2015 after increasing strongly between 2009/10 and 2015/16.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, warned previously that the trend pointed to deficiencies in CfE and an inadequate focus on core, subject-specific skills such as multiplication and grammar.

He said: “CfE, generally, has never been adequately evidenced due to the lack of baseline data but one of the things that is often said about it is that there’s a lack of attention to knowledge – too much focus on ad hoc skills and cross-curricular themes or activities such as project work, and not enough on fundamental, subject-specific skills such as multiplication and grammar.”

The OECD report notes that, when pupils do take on deeper study in S4-6, there is evidence of serious shortcomings.

“Learning in the Senior Phase was described as being aligned to National Course prescriptions, to best prepare students for important exams required to complete education and move onto the next stages,” it states.

HeraldScotland: Professor Lindsay Paterson, of Edinburgh University, has questioned whether CfE as currently implemented focuses sufficiently on developing pupil knowledge.Professor Lindsay Paterson, of Edinburgh University, has questioned whether CfE as currently implemented focuses sufficiently on developing pupil knowledge.

“Such learning does not follow the same structure and principles as CfE. As a result, the learning approaches designed in CfE are not fully realised in secondary schools.

“Student learning patterns show more traditional learning activities at the upper-secondary level (Senior Phase), with its strong focus on exam accreditation. Senior Phase students reported an emphasis on rote learning and memorisation, which they described as ‘boring’, and on preparing to succeed in the tasks required for qualifications.

“They have fewer opportunities to experience more engaging, intrinsically motivating activities related to problem solving, creativity, co-operation or communication. Interestingly, students reported that they experienced more meaningful approaches to learning in the Advanced Higher courses, which seem to better reflect the CfE vision.

“Although less explicit, teachers and school leaders also expressed their concerns about the limited instructional patterns in the Senior Phase in relation to CfE. They referred to the need for traditional practices to remain in place as the most efficient way to help students obtain their qualifications.”

The report is not all negative and highlights important signs of progress.

READ MORE: Record funding of £215 million pledged to support disadvantaged pupils

Its authors note, for example, that Scotland ranks among the top-performing countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) global competence module, which measures the ability of 15-year-olds to examine local and global issues, understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, engage with people from different cultures, and act for collective well-being and sustainable development. Reading scores in PISA's 2018 round of tests increased sharply and were some of the best recorded by the organisation. 

On the poverty-related attainment gap, the report says there has been an “apparent improvement” for Scotland's disadvantaged pupils. According to PISA, the impact of students’ socio-economic status on performance in reading, maths and science is among the lowest across OECD countries, while there is also a greater proportion of “resilient” young people from less well-off backgrounds who work and achieve at high levels.

The report adds that enquiry-based professional development initiatives have helped teachers understand CfE and boosted their confidence in curriculum design.

“CfE as a policy was a bold initiative in its inception that has progressed and reached schools across Scotland,” it states. “CfE’s vision to achieve excellence for all students, embodied in the four capacities, is widely shared by stakeholders. Although initially developed in 2002-04, the vision remains relevant for its bold, future-oriented approach and continues to be an inspiring example equated with good practice internationally.”