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Institutional Complexity and its brake on the Curriculum for Excellence – Euan Mackie

The recent fall in Scottish literacy levels have been blamed on the Curriculum for Excellence.

In this article, I argue that it is institutional bureaucracy which is systematically undermining the true approach of the Curriculum, and these institutional processes now  require radical reorientation and simplification.  

The Curriculum for Excellence admirably describes the ideal outcomes of Scottish Education through the four capacities:

  • successful learners
  • confident individuals
  • responsible citizens
  • effective contributors

This curriculum focuses on the ‘personal development of the individual’, and its terms ‘successful’, ‘confident’, ‘responsible’ and ‘effective’, are relative to the individual and not intended to set an absolute assessment criteria. The intention then is to promote a school experience which pays attention to the active participation of all the pupils in the qualities of their own development. In this scenario, pupils presumably, will be enhanced with higher responsibility for their skills development.

Faced with increasing pressure of public and political scrutiny, the political and institutional focus is on the school as a ‘service provider’,  and schools, local authorities, national institutions and government,  have created a network of systems, protocols, standard procedure and metrics to create a sense of accountability in all actions. 

Look at the bookshelves of any school and you will see them creak and groan with the weight of guidance manuals. There are few areas in contemporary classroom life, which have been left untouched by these prescriptive procedures. These protocols are generated at every level, from the schools themselves up through the corporate structures of the local authority, to our national institutions and government.

This is a fundamentally bureaucratic, ‘top down’ approach, rather than nurturing the entitlement of personal aspiration and citizenship.

In addition, while the construction of this framework was done with the intention of consistency and improvement, it was done without concern for the resource limits and time available at the school level. Furthermore, little attention has gone into measuring the cumulative effective of accountability on the motivation of teachers and pupils.

The elaboration of procedure is a major industry in education and now consumes significant amounts of time to undertake. We understand that bureaucracy and workload is now a significant issue in the system, and we should link it with a critical questioning of these complex institutional processes.

The Curriculum for Excellence, alone, is a very good example of how modern institutional process serves to proceed in expanding documentation over an extensive time,  through a multitude of committees, documentation, refining criteria, the further tendency to ‘unpack’ detail, and then providing further clarification to refocus earlier writing. Exemplification and procedures for monitoring follow.  The curriculum becomes increasingly confused in complexity to pupils, parents, and even teachers.  In this verbosity of documentation and variance in understanding, the fundamental outcomes are lost.

However, the Curriculum is only one area of procedural elaboration. There are many other well intentioned processes which have grown in complexity and requirement: School Improvement Planning and Self Evaluation processes, Standards and Quality reports; The GCTS elaborated Standards, protocols for induction, for Professional Review, Continuing Professional Development;  The agreements between unions and authorities at national and local level; The legislation  for Additional Needs, and Inclusion; Health and Safety legislation; Local authority and internal school procedures; Devolved School Management; The National Improvement Framework; and Equity Funding. The list goes on…

These are of institutional good intention, which cumulatively have a complexity which burdens individuals and reduces the freedom of those who carry out these processes. This total impact is only felt at the base of the system in the school and classroom and is not fully appreciated at the top layers of decision making.

Institutional process, at any level, naturally expands as bureaucracy stretches its remit. It is where there is a need to feel in control that we find it expand most rapidly. Hence the heavy prominence of checklists, targets and tracking in our pedagogical culture.

In prioritising the things that can be counted, it gives measurement undue prominence. Conversely it means that those important aspects of relationships and pastoral care, mentoring and coaching,  are seen to be less important, and the personal values of young people, like fun, the freedom to choose, to make mistakes, and the growth of personal dignity and grace, are side-lined in favour of target hunting.

Being a professional teacher no longer means to be a leader of learning with intuitive vocational curiosity about valuing and guiding young people. The prize now goes to those who can deliver the ticks on the box, and learn to use the appropriate protocols and play it safe in the face of scrutiny in whichever form it manifests: self-evaluation, risk assessment, class visits, paperwork, assessment, CPD records, reports to parents… …the list goes on.

Similarly, pupils are increasingly weighed down with assessment criteria, and exhortations to do this and that, to meet the requirements of course criteria. The joy and motivation of learning is lost.

The system trains us to be reliant on protocol, validation by others, and whatever measure is used to hold us to account. This is the antithesis of mature citizenship and value for the individual. So much of Scottish Education now feels arid, and of the nature of educational serfdom.

So while the Four Capacities are flagged up as our main intention, they do not provide the current focus of strategic planning or the priority of those working in schools.

What is required, is a significant simplification and rationalisation of institutional process, to reduce ‘top down’ procedures of accountability, assessment, ‘quality improvement’ and corporate veneer.  The emphasis should allow more time to coach and value individual pupils (and teachers), and focus collaboratively on their skills acquisition, and pastoral care.

Euan Mackie  writes in an independent capacity while acting as an educational coach and an area officer of the Association of Head Teachers and Deputes in Scotland.