03 SES 08 A, Curriculum Design and Coherence Making
Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), in common with many modern curricula worldwide, seeks to transform education for young people. It aims to promote student learning that prepares young people more effectively for life and work in complex modern societies, for example the development of so-called 21st century skills. One of the major challenges facing Scotland’s schools as they enact (Braun, Maguire & Ball, 2010) CfE is the Broad General Education phase, which spans the primary (P1-P7) and early secondary (S1-3) grades. Known as the BGE, this phase has been especially challenging for secondary schools, which traditionally have used the early grades as preparation for senior phase qualifications. Typically, in Scottish secondary schools, students in S1-3 will experience a subjects-based curriculum, involving contact with as many as 15-20 subject teachers in a week (Priestley, 2018), and mirroring the discipline-based subjects that have featured historically in the senior phase.
This potentially means a very fragmented curricular experience for students, which sits in tension with the stated aims of the BGE to provide a broad foundational education up to the age of 14. According to the national agency Education Scotland, the BGE is intended to allow young people to:
achieve the highest possible levels of literacy, numeracy and cognitive skills; develop skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work; develop knowledge and understanding of society, the world and Scotland's place in it; [and] experience challenge and success so that they can develop well-informed views and the four capacities
(Education Scotland, ND).
Achieving these goals has been challenging in a system, where primary schools have been traditionally claimed to teach children, while secondary schools have been said to teach subjects (Bryce and Humes, 2008). A particular barrier to innovation has been the existence of accountability through output regulation of the curriculum, comprising external inspections, self-evaluation against performance indicators and the use of attainment data for senior phase qualifications) to measure school effectiveness (see Priestley, 2014). These measures have been complemented by a benchmarking tool called Insight, which generates tariff points to reward a school’s performance against particular benchmarks. The result has been the development of performativity – most often seen as BGE programs being configured to maximise future success in the senior phase – and curriculum development that is often contrary to the explicit aims of CfE.
To date there has been little research conducted in this area, as most studies have focused on analysing senior phase patterns of provision and attainment (see, Iannelli & Duta, 2018; Shapira and Priestley, 2020). While inspection reports and anecdotal accounts point to the issues of curricular fragmentation and incoherence in the secondary BGE grades, there has been no systematic study of these phenomena until now. This paper outlines the results of the first phase of a wider study aimed at tackling this issue, the Nuffield-funded ‘Choice, attainment and positive destinations: exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people’ project. The research presented here draws from phase one of the study, a survey circulated to all secondary schools in Scotland, focusing on patterns of curriculum provision and the factors that shape curricular decision making.
This paper draws upon original primary data on curriculum provision and practices in Scottish secondary schools, generated from an online survey sent to school leaders in all secondary schools in Scotland between June and September 2020. A total of 116 secondary schools responded (a third of Scottish secondary schools) and the sample is largely representative of the wider Scottish national school population. The survey collected systematic information from secondary schools in Scotland about curriculum provision and factors that influence decisions about that provision in both the BGE (S1-3) and senior phase (S4-6). The survey data has been linked to the administrative information about schools (from the Scottish School Census), in order to examine the patterns of provision in relation to such characteristics of schools as their size, socio-economic composition of the student body, etc. The survey has provided data which has enabled the research team to: - identify curriculum provision in grades S1-S6 and variation in this provision between regions, local authorities and schools of different characteristics; - explore between-school variations in the number of subject choices offered to students; - explore the factors that affect these variations; - and identify school resourcing issues (e.g. funding and staff shortages) and the impact these have on curriculum provision. The paper focuses on the BGE S1-3 phase, with the survey data analysed using descriptive methods of data analysis in order to map the current curriculum landscape in the BGE phase. Further, we will present findings on the range of subjects and courses on offer to young people, the number of subjects and courses young people are studying at one time, and the number of teachers with whom young people have contact in each grade, exploring how this might vary over S1 to S3. Additionally, we will report on how subjects and courses are being offered to young people (e.g. on an integrated or rotational bases). A very brief summary of these key findings are outlined below. We will also present for discussion the results of (currently on-going) regression analysis into the school and local authority level factors that affect the patterns of provision and practices at the BGE phase. Dependent variables: - Subjects on offer - Number of subjects students study in S1-S3 - Number of teachers in contact with young people in the BGE - The ways subjects are offered (e.g. concurrently, rotational) Independent variables: - Characteristics of schools - Characteristics of local authorities
To date, the data suggests a degree of curriculum narrowing in S3. This subsequently feeds into the well-documented phenomenon of curriculum narrowing in the senior phase (Shapira & Priestley, 2020) and suggests the final year of the BGE is not being used as intended (with it being used as a preparatory year for the senior phase). Our findings highlight the diversity of curriculum provision in the BGE is diverse in Scotland. This is encouraging in terms of schools potentially contextualising their curriculum provision to meet the needs of local communities. However, there are concerns that the factors influencing curriculum decision-making may suggest that there are wider concerns surrounding social inequalities, geographical context and staff/student equity at a national level. In addition, in relation to the factors influencing curriculum decision-making in the BGE, the findings suggest that some national level policies, such as those related to CfE, are not deemed important by senior school leaders. This means schools may not be enacting the curriculum and students may not be receiving equitable opportunities across schools. A key issue in terms of wider Scottish approaches and international agreements covering children and young people’s well-being and rights. As outlined above, the emerging findings have policy implications, as it illustrates how curriculum enactment in schools can exist in tension with the stated policy intentions of CfE - the ideas behind curriculum intended to provide breadth and depth in Scottish education. These findings may provide insights to inform other contemporary European and worldwide curriculum policy developments (e.g. Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand), where new curriculum policy is intended to develop a broad range of competences, but where tensions between intrinsic and institutional logics (Young, 1998) of curriculum reform (e.g. between accountability mechanisms and curriculum intentions) can render implementation problematic.
Braun, A., Maguire, M. & Ball, S.J. (2010). Policy enactments in the UK secondary school: examining policy, practice and school positioning. Journal of Education Policy, 25(4), 547-560. Bryce, T.G.K. & Humes, W.M. (2008). An Introduction to Scottish Education, Third Edition: Beyond Devolution. In: T.G.K Bryce & W.M. Humes, Scottish Education, Third Edition: Beyond Devolution (pp. 3-10). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Education Scotland (ND). Broad general education. https://education.gov.scot/education-scotland/scottish-education-system/broad-general-education/ (retrieved 28/01/2020) Iannelli, C. & Duta, A. (2018). Inequalities in school leavers’ labour market outcomes: do school subject choices matter? Oxford Review of Education, 44(1), 56-74. Priestley, M. (2014). Curriculum regulation in Scotland: A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf. European Journal of Curriculum Studies, 1. 61-68. Priestley, M. (2018). Curriculum reform: Progress, tensions and possibilities. In: Bryce, T.G.K., Humes, W.M., Gillies, D. & Kennedy, A. (eds.), Scottish Education: Fifth edition (pp. 897-907). Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press. Shapira, M. & Priestley, M. (2020). Do schools matter? An exploration of the determinants of lower secondary school subject choices under the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. Review of Education, 8(1), 191-238. Young, M.F.D. (1998). The Curriculum of the Future: From the new sociology of education to a critical theory of learning. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
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