NB this post was first written in the summer of 2016. A couple of additional notes below show that the themes flagged up still pervade and look unlikely to be resolved.
The Strange Death of CfE
The strange death of Liberal England remains a discussion point for historians. George Dangerfield’s work provides the back drop for the classic debate: – was the Liberal Party knocked over by the omnibus of the Great War or were its multiple cancerous tumours (Conservatism, Ulster Unionism and Suffragettes) going to kill it anyway. Can the same conceptual framework be applied to the apparent death of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), Scotland’s much heralded and reformist education agenda?
In our case, what will be CfE’s ‘Great War’- impatience?; GERM Warfare (Global Education Reform Movement) or similar?; or was there something altogether flawed about CfE’s design and implementation. God forbid it suffers the same fate that blights education community. One North American observer recently commented, “education is the only community where we eat our children.” Thankfully, these were not actual children but the point is well made. Often the destructive factor comes from within- from a profession to keen to criticise and to knock each other down rather than build each other up.
So in the ‘build-up’ of CfE, what knocked it back down? Was it the design and implementation? I recall a colleague suggesting that CfE had become an unholy alliance of “the holy sandaled brigade and the men in suits.” There certainly was something of a hybrid in it with the broad brushstrokes of educational wholeness and utilitarian desires being omnipresent albeit reconciled with the ‘suited men’ of exam results, performance management and hardwired linkages to statistics and economic output measures.
The lack of clarity around clear, definitive and agreed goals of CfE must have caused recent OECD review teams no end of challenge as they sought to evaluate the impact of this new approach.
Alas, schools operating in the wide open expanse of education policy do have some firm anchors they can hold onto. For despite the proclamations of a new approach they are well aware of the reliance on exam data as an accountability measure and align much of their improvement planning to the structures of ‘How Good is Our School’ documentation for improvement and inspection.
The publication of HGIOS 4 is a welcome and timely one as it has updated previous documents to reflect major areas of work which are now evident within schools embracing CfE:– more active, engaged students with a voice and leading learning alongside a renewed focus on employability and its new overarching policy, “ developing our young workforce.”
An initial reading of the document provides a potential process model around the core themes with (1) leadership and management being in place and ensuring there is (2) excellent learning provision which (3) achieves successes and achievements. This clear three part process and framework gives a clear focus on the core of what education is about:- leading, learning- and the excellent outcomes all aspire to achieve.
However, the word excellence itself has morphed as time has gone on. Many have discredited the word- finding it hard to define and unhelpful in context. I was interested to see how often the word was actually used in inspection and improvement documentation. My interest was sparked after a search for one particular part of the HGIOS document for another piece I was working on. The results were startling.
A simple search of the HGIOS4 showed that it appeared only 8 times in the HGIOS4 (2015) document). HGGIOS3 (2007) document showed that it appeared only 15 times. And that is including a footnote reference however does not include the various pages which are marked on the side with branded “Curriculum for Excellence” statements. One might be surprised by the lack of mention of the word even in 2007, far less a definition. One might contest that this was at the outset of CfE, however Building the Curriculum 1 (the first of the CfE ‘building block’ policy and practice documents) was published the year before in 2006.
However Excellence is a title is one things but what was it to achieve. CfE had four pillars at the heart of what it was trying to achieve. The notion of Successful Learners, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Confident Individuals was at the heart of the new curriculum and inspired many. So how did these key concept fair in the documentation vital to the implementation of CfE.
Successful learners only appeared 4 times in HGIOS3. Fast forward seven years and it only appears once in the documentation. Effective Contributors suffered the same fate with five references in 2007 and only 1 now. At least responsible citizens feature twice in 2015 documentation. Nevertheless it reduction from 5 references in 2007 follows a similar trend to its now crumbling pillars. And so, what about confident induvial? It appeared the least in the initial documentation with only 3 references. Like its other now decimated pillars, by 2015 it only appeared once in the documents. The pillars have crumbled and the temple has fallen.
How about the National Improvement Framework? Does this offer more hope for the four capacities despite the well-articulated and much publicised fears that it will return Scottish education from utopian ideals to education by examination? All four pillars are mentioned once in the vision statement at the start of the document but are never returned to. If this is the vision, how is it ever to be realised without any detail sitting behind it? The National Improvement Hub might offer some hope of a revolution from below. However, whilst successful learners is mentioned in 16 resources on a simple search of this resource (some provided by school cases studies, others form national documents) , the other pillars do not feature strongly with only 3 mentions of both Effective Contributors and Responsible Citizen respectively and four of confident individuals. [Search undertaken early summer 2016]
So, what killed of this grand ambition? Why have the four pillars collapsed so quickly over time. They were key elements in the founding documents of Building the Curriculum however the loop was never closed and they were not kept high enough on the agenda. With the HGIOS document being such a key driver of what schools do it appears the vision of CfE was doomed by the very authors who acted as the central repository for the national debate on education and from that debate carved the New Jerusalem for education in the first place.
One might say that if CfE was killed by its parents then it was also let down by its best friends. As an education community, did we all do enough to champion the progress of young people as effective contributors, responsible citizens, confident individuals and successful learners? Were the same planning tools, focus, tracking devices and celebrations of success attached to the four pillars as are to exam performance? Some schools can hand on heart say “yes.” If not, then we got what we were set up for. This takes us back to the original question- was CfE killed off a single hit or were multiple factors at play when it did not take off. One thing is for sure, with only one mention in the National Improvement Framework its revival seems unlikely. As policy makers and leaders look south for solutions there is more chance of a revival of neo liberal England than our own CfE.
Stop Press (5th September 2016)
With the publication of an updated CfE Statement for Practitioners in late August 2016 there might have been some hope for a reaffirming of the Four Pillars of CfE. This document does however state that the key priorities for CfE are now:- Literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing alongside the Closing the Gap agenda. Our much heralded and hoped for Four Capacities again get only one mention. Whilst they are sitting at the top of a chart with core information, they do not appear until the second last page of the document. Perhaps our national education body feels these are now embedded? If so, what is the evidence of this and have we measured it with the same gusto we are about to embark upon with the assessment element of NIF and the huge amount of work dedicated to NQs updating? If we do not feel it is embedded- why has it dropped off the radar in terms of placing and significance in policy documentation. Have we witnessed the Strange Death of CfE?