Learned Societies’ Group response to the OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence

The Learned Societies’ Group for Scottish STEM Education (LSG) welcomed Scottish Government’s commitment to commissioning a review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in its entirety. The LSG had previously advocated that a comprehensive review of both the Broad General Education (BGE) and the senior phase be undertaken, with a particular emphasis on how the two are integrated in practice. It also appreciated the opportunity to contribute to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) virtual stakeholder sessions in support of the review of CfE in October 2020 and this response expands upon points made by its representative during the session, as well as highlighting other longstanding areas of interest and concern. Given the unique breadth of the LSG’s membership and its longstanding contributions, it was well-placed to provide insights into how the STEM subjects have been impacted during the implementation and delivery of CfE.

Paper summary

Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was never evaluated in the early stages of its implementation and so there was never an opportunity to identify and rectify issues before they became embedded in the system. It is recommended that any further changes are subjected to regular independent evaluation, not only to prevent problems from becoming entrenched but also to capitalise upon proven successes. This will necessarily involve the collection of robust and comprehensive baseline data, as highlighted by the previous OECD review (2015), which is currently lacking in Scotland.

The LSG welcomes the review’s commitment to examining the articulation between Broad General Education (BGE) and the senior phase and suggests this could also include the relationship between other stages within the system, such as coherence across the S1-S3 years and across the primary school and senior school divide.

One way in which reduced subject choice might be circumvented could be to rationalise the distribution of the curriculum and qualifications across successive years. There could be an opportunity to make more efficient use of S3 by enabling National 4 (N4) material to be covered and awarded as such, effectively freeing up more time during the senior phase for students to pursue a wider range of courses. This same philosophy could be applied to the link between S2 and S3 (with a shift in content from S3 to S2) and in running N4 and National 5 (N5) courses across both S3 and S4.

Resolving the adverse impacts of multi-course teaching could involve a redesign of corresponding N4 and N5 units in order to make them more similar, with a core plus extension or foundation/general design, and thus lend themselves to being taught simultaneously in instances where this is necessary. In the shorter term, it might be prudent to consider renaming units across N4, N5, Higher, and Advanced Higher to better reflect their respective content and so discourage overlapping these courses within the same slot in a school’s timetable. At present, many of these units share a name, which could give the impression to school leaders and timetablers that there is more commonality between them than actually exists.

Ensuring that core STEM concepts are covered during Initial Teacher Education (ITE) would help to ensure that primary teachers have the requisite knowledge and understanding to deliver STEM learning most effectively, though these positive impacts will only become apparent over the longer term. In the short term, the LSG recommends that career-long professional learning (CLPL) is made widely accessible and promoted across the system in order to build capacity in STEM teaching at the primary school level. Such CLPL should also include opportunities for subject-specific learning.

Ensuring access to high-quality practical laboratory work is heavily dependent on technician presence and expertise. Appropriate action should be targeted towards increasing technician numbers and improving job security and satisfaction to ensure staff are retained over the longer term.

The CfE review can be an important first step at determining what a fit-for-purpose approach to assessment in Scottish schools should look like, including in the wake of COVID-19 and the agility it has demanded of the system. This should necessarily be paired with consideration given to the purpose of qualifications at various levels and whether these are being realised in practice, in order to ensure that curriculum, assessments, and qualifications form an integrated whole.

The review might provide recommendations on a future model for assignments and how to ensure the skills they teach, such as research and critical thinking, are still developed by students.

International examples have illustrated the benefits of a more planned, cyclical approach to curriculum and assessment development, which helps to avoid some of the aftershocks of periodic curriculum upheavals while still allowing for measured, meaningful change. A similar approach might prove suitable for Scotland, particularly if it involves some piloting of proposed changes.

In terms of teacher workforce planning, the LSG has previously commented on the need for data on the number of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) entrants that complete their courses and go on to teaching careers. Such quantitative data should be supplemented with more qualitative studies in order to understand the motivations behind pursuing teaching as a profession and how more students might be encouraged to enter the field. It will also be essential to collect more data on socioeconomic status, gender, and other characteristics and how they influence entry figures, attainment, and future career paths.

There is a need for an open and genuine debate within the Scottish education system – with substantial input from practising teachers – on their role as empowered professionals and as curriculum-makers. The challenge will be to reconcile an appropriate degree of local autonomy with the benefits that a more centralised approach to curriculum design can provide.