Election 2024

The Lib Dems following Scotland on curriculum is remarkably bad

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence should be a warning to politicians of how not to reform a curriculum - not an inspiration, says Daisy Christodoulou

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence should be a warning to politicians of how not to reform a curriculum - not an inspiration, says Daisy Christodoulou

10 Jun 2024, 21:02

About 20 years ago, pretty much every political party in Scotland agreed on a programme of curriculum reform. 

There was a big consultation with many different education stakeholders which gained broad consensus in favour of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, a skills-based curriculum that would promote 21st century skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.

Unfortunately, this curriculum has not had the hoped-for impact. Scottish performance on international tests has declined, and in 2023, one of the architects of the curriculum admitted the reforms failed because they were based on a flawed understanding of the relationship between knowledge and skills.

You cannot teach skills like critical thinking and creativity in the abstract. They depend on domain-specific knowledge, which has to be taught specifically. 

You can be wonderfully creative at solving physics problems but very uncreative at designing theatre sets. There is an extensive research literature on this which is now much better known within the profession, and which is being put into practice by many pioneering schools and teachers across the UK.

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence should stand as a warning of how not to reform a curriculum. But in today’s Liberal Democrat manifesto launch, it seems to have been the inspiration.

The Lib Dems have proposed setting a up a commission “to build a long-term consensus across parties and teachers to broaden the curriculum…and ensure children learn core skills such as critical thinking, verbal reasoning and creativity.”

For the UK Lib Dems to be proposing almost exactly the same reform as the one that they endorsed in Scotland and which failed so badly there is remarkable. 

It’s also a reminder that whilst consensus sounds nice, it has downsides too. Every major political party agreed on the Scottish reforms, which meant that lots of important aspects of implementation lacked scrutiny. Sometimes too much consensus leads to groupthink.

It is also worth asking how a consensus will be created. The Lib Dem manifesto calls for a commission to establish a consensus, but in the same breath, with a Sir Humphrey-esque sleight of hand, it presupposes what that consensus will be.

What is the point of having a commission if you have already decided that the right answer is to teach creativity? What will happen to the stakeholders who disagree with this presupposition? If you do disagree with the presupposition, how likely are you to have faith that the consultation will be fair and representative?

Many UK teachers are more informed about education than the Lib Dem manifesto writers. They’ve seen the failures of skills-based curriculums, the bureaucratic hurdles they impose, the confusion and workload caused by the vagueness of their statements, and the success of very different, knowledge-based curriculums.

It’s unlikely that a fair and representative commission of educational stakeholders would now deliver a consensus in favour of teaching skills in the abstract.

Many classroom teachers will be familiar with the way unsuccessful initiatives get rolled out anew every September, their past failures memoryholed, and their critics deemed troublemakers.

Now we have the same experience at a national level.

We have to be honest about what has and has not worked in the past. If we can’t learn from failure, we can never make progress. 

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