Shapira M, Priestley M, Barnett C, Peace-Hughes T & Richie M (2023) Choice, Attainment and Positive Destinations: Exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people. The Nuffield foundation. London. https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/project/exploring-the-impact-of-curriculum-policy-on-choice-attainment-and-destinations
The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has been widely acknowledged as the most significant educational development in Scotland for a generation (Priestley & Humes, 2010). Implemented from 2010, the holistic, competency-based curriculum for those aged 3-18 years aims to prepare children and young people for the workplace and citizenship in the 21st Century (Scottish Government, 2009). Alongside the development of a new curriculum framework, Scottish qualifications were re-designed and these changes were implemented from 2013.
Research aims and methods
This project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, explores how curriculum narrowing in secondary schools in Scotland, under CfE, is linked to socio-economic characteristics, producing robust evidence on the factors influencing curriculum decisions made by pupils and their families, teachers/schools and Local Authorities. The evidence produced by this project will inform curriculum policies and practices, as well as deepen understanding of how curriculum-making relates to educational attainment, early transitions of young people and other outcomes.
The project utilised a mixed-methods research design including:
1. Analysis of existing secondary datasets (the Scottish Longitudinal Study (SLS); administrative education data held by the Scottish Government; and Scotland's PISA dataset), exploring patterns of subject enrolment in the senior phase of secondary education and associated relationships with pupil/family characteristics, school characteristics, attainment in National Qualifications and the
OECD Global Competency measures, and the early destinations of school leavers.
2. Generation of new data to obtain a comprehensive and representative view of school curriculum provision in Scotland, highlighting patterns of offered subjects, their organization, student
choices, and the influences that shape curricular decision-making in schools.
o A survey of Secondary School Senior Leaders, regarding curriculum provision in the Broad General Education and Senior stages of secondary education.
o Qualitative research (focus groups and interviews) was conducted with key stakeholders in Scottish education, including Local Authority Directors of Education and Quality Improvement Officers, school headteachers, school staff, young people, and parents/carers.
Patterns of provision in Scottish secondary schools
Senior phase provision
• Overall, under CfE, a reduction in the number of National Qualifications entries in S4 compared to the period prior to the introduction of the new curriculum.
• A decrease since 2013 in the number of subjects studied by S4.
• A steeper decline in enrolments in subjects such as Social Subjects, Expressive Arts and Modern Languages, compared to subjects seen as core curriculum (e.g., Maths and English).
• Evidence of social stratification in overall and subject entry patterns in S4, with a steeper decline (e.g., fewer entries, a narrower range of subjects) affecting students from comparatively disadvantaged areas.
• A greater likelihood of delayed patterns of entry to SCQF level 5 qualifications (in S5 rather than in S4) and Higher qualifications (in S6 rather than in S5) in schools serving more disadvantaged areas.
• Significant variation in the number of subjects studied in the BGE, both between schools and across different year groups.
• Evidence of the significant curricular fragmentation in many schools, with a large proportion of students being taught by over 15 teachers each week.
• Evidence of early subject choice in some schools, with students being channelled into Senior Phase courses before the end of the formal BGE in S3.
Explanations for patterns of provision
• Significant evidence of the existence of a culture of performativity in many schools, encouraging the instrumental selection of content and/or organisation of curriculum provision to maximise attainment in the Senior Phase.
o BGE provision mirroring the senior phase choices, with the potential for fragmentation, incoherent provision and over-early subject choices.
o The existence of practices which are counter-educational, including abolishing low-performing subjects in the Senior Phase, teaching-to-the-test and channelling students into courses to benefit school attainment statistics.
3. Shortages of teachers (especially in STEM subjects) and a lack of teacher non-contact time, which limit subjects offered and teachers’ capacity for curriculum making.
4. Evidence that many key actors in the system (including Local Authority Directors of Education) dislike current practices associated with the attainment agenda, which they see as acting counter to the philosophy of CfE.
• Despite fewer young people entering SCQF level 5 qualifications in S4 since 2013, a higher proportion of those who took up these qualifications have passed. Similarly, the proportion of successful passes of Higher qualifications in S5 has increased since 2014. This implies that more selective entry into SCQF level 5 qualifications introduced under CfE might have positively impacted the qualifications pass rates and may have also resulted in better pass rates for Higher qualifications.
• However, entries to National 5 level qualifications in S5 have decreased under CfE, suggesting that the introduction of more flexibility in taking up National 5 level qualifications over a longer period and a reduction in the National 5 qualification uptake in S4, have not resulted, on average, in a larger uptake of these qualifications in S5.
• We also found that that curriculum narrowing is associated with negative consequences for young people in relation to attainment, transitions to subsequent study in school, and destinations
o Detrimental effect of a narrower curriculum in S4 on attainment, contrary to the commonly held belief that studying fewer subjects would improve results, including evidence that a narrower curriculum in S4 is linked (directly or indirectly) with fewer qualifications attained at SCQF level 5 qualifications in S5, at Higher level qualifications in S5 and at Advanced Higher levels qualifications in S6.
o An association between a narrower curriculum in S4 and lower attainment in PISA tests, including measures of global competence.
o An association between a narrower curriculum in S4 and less positive destinations after leaving school, especially in relation to HE entry.
Recommendations for policy and practice
We conclude the report with 23 detailed recommendations for policy and practice. These are primarily focused on policy, because of the important role of policy in creating the conditions for curriculum-making in schools, and we strongly recommend that these should be carefully reviewed by the Scottish Government, Local Authorities, and national and regional education agencies. The following points
provide a flavour of these.
1. Accountability and performativity
a. An independent review of data usage for accountability purposes.
b. Reform of assessment methodology for National Qualifications, to incorporate more continuous coursework assessment, embedded in learning and less likely to promote teaching-to-the-test methodologies.
c. Additional measures of student outcomes to provide a holistic picture of how well the education system is preparing young people for the transition to adult life.
2. Curriculum provision
a. The development of new national guidance to articulate the structures, relationships and transitions between the BGE and Senior Phase.
b. Further to the current review of Senior Phase National Qualifications, a reconsideration of the structure of the Senior Phase alongside a reform of assessment methodology and a shift in discourse away from NQs to SCQF levels.
3. Building capacity
a. An increase in teacher non-contact time, some of which should be allocated for collaborative curriculum making.
b. The development of teacher collaborative networks, with expert leadership, to coordinate curriculum-making at a regional level.
c. The development of a national programme of professional learning, focused on curriculum and curriculum-making, in order to build a cohort of expert teachers who can act as leaders of regional teacher networks.
d. The development of approaches for working with young people and caregivers to increase their awareness about the consequences of different curriculum choices.
4. Policy development
a. Alongside the national discussion about the purposes of the curriculum, a commitment to consider how the technical structure of the curriculum currently in use might need to change.
b. The development of national/regional systems for shared sense-making (in relation to policy) that allow stakeholders to develop a clear conceptualisation of any reform.
c. Further investment in educational policies that break the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and qualifications’ uptake.
5. Better access to data for research
a. To better inform educational policies, the creation of more efficient and transparent processes of collection of administrative education data to: engage researchers in the data collection design; improve researchers’ access to existing administrative education datasets,
including international datasets; and facilitate data linkage and data analysis for researchers