The Curriculum for Excellence, by Alastair Smith

After a long summer holiday, is it time for the Curriculum for Excellence to come under scrutiny?

It’s still headline news in Scotland. We don't have enough teachers. Coupled with the huge gap in attainment between rich and poor, the SNP's record on education is proving to be catastrophically abysmal. I don't think it is just about living costs and standards. I think the very problem lies at the root of the curriculum changes themselves.

I would go as far as to say that a small part of the reason why we don't have enough trained teachers is that some, including myself, found the Curriculum for Excellence a complete nightmare to get the head around. I make no bones about it that I was a PGDE drop out. Maybe teaching was never in me, I just don't know. Maybe I could have persevered but I found it difficult to communicate and organise what I had to plan for lessons. Either way, somewhere down the line the university course’s expectations became confused with the individual classrooms expectations.

I take my hat off to the students on my course who did manage to get through it and pass their training year. I was rather frustrated at myself that my first assignment on the course, which I did on 'how to teach primary mathematics effectively' scored 25/30 at masters level. On paper, I was on track to be a masters level teacher but somewhere down the line my confidence just took a turn for the worse when planning my lessons, because I found it so difficult to plan in this cross-curricular fashion.

I'm not suggesting that the CfE was the only reason I dropped out. There were a number of factors involved and I don't blame anyone. I don't blame the teacher I was assigned. I don't blame the school because it was a great school and a great environment. Nor do I blame the university because the tutors were very approachable and the tutorials were very enjoyable. Perhaps I was too afraid to use the support mechanisms available, because I could have definitely have benefited from admitting that I was struggling.

Nevertheless, I would call on a study to be done to determine if the shortage of the number of teachers being trained is connected to students dropping out, and I would also like to determine what the most common reasons are for dropping out. There is no doubt in my mind that the CfE is partly responsible. On the course, we are taught to be critical and to look at various different pedagogies, even at schools which claim fantastic results based on having a system of no rules. We are taught to be creative and develop our own pedagogies based on research, but when we get into the classroom we have to plan the way we are told to.

The dilemma, however, is that the way we are told to, is often then the ways the class teachers themselves have developed.

The CfE is so vague and overarching that it is not an easy thing to define a standard for planning a series of literacy lessons or numeracy lessons which students can them aim for. I would suggest that they could definitely do with making the training year for teachers a little less complicated. Confidence is a big thing in teaching and I think just being able to deliver a series of literacy lessons based on a template that has worked before is definitely something we should be looking at for student teachers. They need to build their confidence gradually.

I think that the Curriculum for Excellence has become a Curriculum of Expectation that teachers and pupils alike are finding it difficult to live up to. It is time that we did a study to find out what it is we are getting right and what could be improved. I'm not suggesting that we disrupt the educational establishment very suddenly, but we need to gradually bring back some standards and some defined expectations of our teachers, old and new, and our pupils, who should be our first priority of care.

I think we have to ask ourselves why the First Minister made a trip to the USA, because it looks like it was more about having a holiday and appearing on television than learning 'educational lessons' from America. On that latter issue, it is interesting to note that in America, the educational system is more local in outlook, with individual school districts deciding on the curriculum. It is also a varied patchwork. Some areas prefer a top down approach, others a bottom up approach to curriculum design, whilst some districts have a combination.

If you look at the New York Educational Department, one of the largest in the USA, it has standard frameworks for what they call English Language and Arts and for their Mathematics series of lessons. In other words, it appears that in large parts of America, the system is the complete opposite from the CfE in that everything is a lot more concrete. If there was any lesson then to be learned from visiting America, it was that curriculum flexibility is good in small doses, but too much can lead to uncertainty for all parties concerned — which is what is happening now in Scotland.

What has to happen, in other words, is for us to return to the 5-14 system, reintroduce methods of assessing progress sufficiently, reintroduce solid frameworks and templates whilst keeping a degree of flexibility introduced by CfE. I say flexibility in curriculum design, but certainly not so much that we retain CfE as it is, because, as it is, it is a tapestry of confusion with high expectations, unclear goals and no results to show for it.

The up and coming generation of teachers have to first learn the craft of lesson delivery and teaching to a template of lessons. Only when they become more experienced in their delivery should they even be thinking about modifying or combining different curricular elements. Whatever the answer is to the CfE's problems and dilemmas, the real story is that it is not as excellent as it should be and indeed no curricular framework perhaps ever is. However, if we do not assess our pupils and train our teachers systematically and gradually, we run the risk of uncertainty taking teachers and pupils on a wild horse trek across a dry and barren landscape.

Alistair Smith is a graduate of history. He loves Scotland and politics and lives in in Aberdeenshire.