Simple but apparently not sufficient – Keir Bloomer

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A few weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of Norwegian directors of education.  At one point I explained to them that Scottish teachers, trying to implement Curriculum for Excellence, are supposed to be familiar with:

  • 4 capacities, covering 12 attributes and 24 capabilities
  • 5 levels
  • 7 principles, 6 entitlements and 10 aims
  • 8 curriculum areas and 3 interdisciplinary areas
  • 4 contexts for learning, and
  • 1820 experiences and outcomes.

They laughed uproariously.  This was the healthy reaction I was hoping for.  The self-evident absurdity of it all tickled their sense of humour.

Unfortunately, I have yet to get a similar reaction from a group of Scottish teachers.  So familiar are they with the machine’s infinite capacity for producing gibberish that they have lost any capacity for surprise, still less amusement.

The list above comes from the report on the implementation of the broad, general education phase of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) published in December 2015 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  As part of their study, the international team had set out to unearth all the official material in relation to CfE.  One of the more junior members of the team – a young Spanish woman as I recall – was set the task  and found 20,000 pages of guidance.  I can only hope that her duties did not include reading it.

OECD recommended that a new narrative should be produced for CfE, adhering to the original principles but focusing on ‘the core matters of curriculum, assessment and pedagogy’.  It should be clear and simple.  The task of creating the new narrative was seen as a task of ‘political leadership’; presumably ministerial clout was seen as a necessary prerequisite for cutting through the dense thicket of over-elaborate advice that had been allowed to flourish.

Nearly four years later, the new narrative has appeared in the form of a set of 4 web pages.  It certainly passes the test of simplicity.  For the most part, it is also clear.  There are instances of unnecessary jargon.  Why are we told that “Individual settings and practitioners” are empowered to make decisions about the curriculum?  What is a ‘setting’?  Would anybody be confused if the reference were just to teachers?  However, this kind of unnecessary verbal contortion is not the norm.  The text is generally easy to read.

There is an attempt also to give practical guidance on how to implement the principles of the curriculum.  5 short pieces of advice are offered in a form that fits within a web-page of reasonable length.  These include ‘Knowing the big ideas’.  It is a pity that this was not seen as a priority after the original Curriculum for Excellence mission statement was published fifteen years ago.  The advice is – inevitably – kept short and is at a high level of generality.  However, it should serve to provoke reflection in schools and provide a kind of checklist for use in curriculum design.

In short, this is a useful resource; one that would almost certainly have been even more useful had it been available much earlier in the process of CfE implementation.  It addresses issues of purpose and principle, seeking to explain the big ideas.  It focuses particularly on the four purposes (still referred to by the unnecessary jargon ‘capacities’), the contexts for learning and the entitlements.  But what of the many other items in the list above?  What is now their status?

Teachers, like the OECD, have been seeking clarity and simplicity.  They want an authoritative source that summarises all that is essential.  And they want the rest to disappear.

The new narrative, therefore, should have been accompanied by a statement that all the other apparatus of CfE, all the 20,000 pages of guidance, is now, at most, optional reading.  That is where the OECD’s idea of political leadership comes in.   It takes courage to admit that CfE has been needlessly complicated and that much of the guidance produced has been of poor quality.  It takes courage also to acknowledge that some of the major difficulties of implementation – the restriction of subject choice in S4 and the increase in multi-level teaching are good examples – have actually been created by the official guidance.  And it will take courage to ‘declutter’ the landscape – remember that word from the early days of CfE? – by withdrawing piles of existing guidance or reducing its status that of optional reading.  Yet that is exactly what is required.

I do not suggest that the new web pages form the basis for such radical action.  More detail would be needed – perhaps something similar to a shortened version of a Building the Curriculum paper, a single authoritative source of manageable size.  For all their merits, the new webpages do not fulfil that remit.

After four years the task set by OECD has still to be tackled.  A refreshed narrative that does not have the capacity to replace all that has gone before is simply yet another addition to the pile.

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform