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Education and the Curriculum for Excellence

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is a bold landmark development in Scottish education for the 3-18 age range. It was introduced in 2010 to provide a broad competence-based education suited to the demands of the 21st Century. It aims to equip young people to thrive in modern complex democratic societies.

Since its implementation, there has been some criticism of CfE, often based on opinion rather than strong evidence. To address this lack of data, education experts at Stirling felt independent research was needed to provide evidence to help ensure CfE provides the right opportunities for all children and young people.

Research at Stirling is influencing government policy around CfE and developing key tools for teachers to use in schools to improve education. Our findings have helped other countries modernise their own models of education.

students in an exam

A bold new vision for education

Curriculum for Excellence was implemented in Scottish schools in 2010, and has been regarded as the most significant educational development in a generation, with the potential to transform learning and teaching.

CfE aims to move away from top-down and prescriptive methods of teaching towards an approach that looks to match educational opportunities more closely with the potential of the individual child. Teachers are given more independence to develop opportunities in the school and classroom, giving a new emphasis on flexible, local planning.

Critics of CfE argue that it downgrades the learning of facts and that it is too vague in what children are meant to learn. There is a fear also that teachers do not understand CfE sufficiently to be able to teach the new curriculum effectively. Yet many of these arguments are based on little evidence, as only limited research had been carried out to assess the impact of CfE.

"CfE generates a lot of politically motivated noise that is based on little evidence. Improving CfE for children is complicated and needs to be supported by the kind of rigorous independent research we do at Stirling."

Professor Mark Priestley, Faculty of Social Sciences

Understanding the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence

Researchers at Stirling felt that politically independent research was needed to fairly assess the impact of CfE. In 2012,  Professor Mark Priestley and Sarah Minty, published a report suggesting that a major issue for the success of CfE lay in a gap between teacher practice and the aims and philosophy of the new curriculum.

At the time, progress in implementing CfE was variable across schools. Many teachers felt there were tensions between the big ideas of the curriculum and the finer detail of its experiences and outcomes. Schools that had taken a longer-term, big picture approach to implementing CfE had achieved more progress, especially if teachers had time to discuss planning and make the most of the new opportunities for teaching and learning.

infographic: Our research

Our research

is helping young people get the right opportunities

infographic: Our experts

Our experts

are providing support for teachers and local authorities

infographic: Developing education

Developing education

through independent research at Stirling

In action in Scotland

Our research on CfE has provided evidence and guidance to the Scottish government in its drive to develop high-quality modern education.

Since 2017, Professor Priestley has been a member of the national Curriculum and Assessment Board. The Board was established to improve curriculum and assessment policy in education and provide advice and guidance to Scottish Ministers.

We have also provided support programmes and workshops, based on our research, for teachers to help improve the development of CfE. We are also working with Scottish local authorities and Education Scotland.

Our international role

Education systems globally are developing new national curricula that increasingly focus on the learner, core competencies and the importance of teachers as curriculum developers. Our researchers have also advised other countries as they seek to develop similar models to CfE. For example, Dr Valerie Drew has worked with local authorities and teachers in Wales. Her model for professional learning has influenced Welsh government policy on curriculum development.

In 2017, we hosted the 3rd European Conference on Curriculum Studies opened by Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney. This brought together senior policymakers and policy developers along with international curriculum scholars, all seeking to progress curriculum development.

The Stirling Network for Curriculum Studies was established in 2016 to improve conversations about curricula across research, policy and practice. The network brings together Stirling researchers, colleagues in other universities and educational practitioners and policymakers.

The network includes contributors from Cyprus, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica. This networking has led to collaborative bids for research funding and influential publications such as The Curriculum Journal.

The next step: uncovering education and social mobility issues

Recently, there has been emerging evidence from our research that in some areas of Scotland there has been a reduction in the number of subject choices offered to pupils despite the intentions of CfE of expanding the opportunities available to them.

This seems to be particularly the case in relation to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is very important as we know the subjects offered and studied at different ages can have a long-term influence on young people’s education and career options.

Our new research exploring this issue, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will be led by Dr Marina Shapira from the Faculty of Social Sciences and supported by Professor Mark Priestley and a research team. The £270,000 study will conduct the first in-depth evaluation of subject provision through CfE. The two-year study is scheduled to report in Autumn 2021.

Research and big data analysis is ongoing at Stirling to assess curriculum provision and outcomes, the role of different actors such as local authorities and teachers, and impact of external pressure such as accountability and performance.

We want to know how this all impacts on the education of young people and the independent evidence we gather will help the Scottish Government further develop CfE.

"We've been arguing that there is not enough evidence to support claims made about the impacts of the Curriculum for Excellence. Our new two-year research project, will go some way towards addressing this evidence gap."

Dr Marina Shapira, Faculty of Social Sciences

Related publications

Debate and critique in curriculum studies: new directions?
Priestley M & Philippou S (2019) Debate and critique in curriculum studies: new directions?. The Curriculum Journal, 30 (4), pp. 347-351. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2019.1670948

Teacher sense-making in school-based curriculum development through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry
Priestley M & Drew V (2017) Teacher sense-making in school-based curriculum development through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry. In: Peters M, Cowie B & Menter I (eds.) A Companion to Research in Teacher Education. Singapore: Springer, pp. 769-784. https://www.springer.com/gb/book/9789811040733

Curriculum reform: Progress, tensions and possibilities
Priestley M (2018) Curriculum reform: Progress, tensions and possibilities. In: Bryce T, Humes W, Gillies D & Kennedy A (eds.) Scottish Education. 5th edn ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Teacher sense-making in school-based curriculum development through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry
Priestley M & Drew V (2017) Teacher sense-making in school-based curriculum development through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry. In: Peters M, Cowie B & Menter I (eds.) A Companion to Research in Teacher Education. Singapore: Springer, pp. 769-784. https://www.springer.com/gb/book/9789811040733

Secondary Science Teachers as Curriculum Makers: Mapping and Designing Scotland's New Curriculum for Excellence
Wallace C & Priestley M (2017) Secondary Science Teachers as Curriculum Makers: Mapping and Designing Scotland's New Curriculum for Excellence. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54 (3), pp. 324-349. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21346

Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice
Priestley M, Biesta G - Bloomsbury Academic 2013

Teacher Agency - an ecological approach
Priestley M, Biesta G, Robinson S - Bloomsbury Academic 2015

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