Curriculum renewal in Scotland: beyond the OECD review

By Tracey Peace-Hughes, Michelle Ritchie, Marina Shapira, Mark Priestley and Camilla Barnett

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) independent review of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has received a lot of attention since its publication on  21st June 2021. In particular, the media has claimed this is a ‘damning report’, focusing rather narrowly on two points in the Review: the proposed reforms of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and the school inspectorate (two recommendations within the overarching Recommendation 3). The Review was swiftly followed by an announcement by the Education Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, who not only committed to accepting all 12 recommendations provided by the OECD, but has also pledged to replace the SQA and substantially reform Education Scotland (see the Scottish Government response to the 12 recommendations, here). 

With the spotlight placed on the OECD recommendations of 3.2 and 3.3 there is a need to shed light on how attention might be focused on other aspects of the review, to go beyond the review of the roles of Education Scotland and Inspectorate and the consideration of replacing the SQA with a new, specialist, stand-alone curriculum agency. For example, within the broader Recommendation 3 (‘Consolidate the institutional processes for effective change’) the focus is not ‘simply’ on reforming the education structures surrounding Scottish education, but also on: how to enable teachers, and other stakeholders, to play a more active role in making, implementing and owning the curriculum; aligning the whole system to deliver on Building the Curriculum 5 (a framework for assessment within CfE); and, the consolidation and development of a rigorous and systematic approach to curriculum review. 

Therefore, in this blog post, we have decided to focus more in-depth on a particular aspect highlighted in the review – the need and desire for the simplification of policies and institutions in Scottish education – whilst foregrounding the experiences of school staff. We draw upon the data we have gathered to-date for our Nuffield Foundation funded study exploring the impact of CfE (Choice, attainment and positive destinations: exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people). This includes: 

  • Survey data from school leaders gathered over the summer of 2020, which asked questions surrounding school curriculum provision, curriculum making and the factors influencing curriculum decisions (see: Shapira et al., 2021). 
  • Qualitative focus group data gathered in Spring/Summer 2021 from a range of key stakeholders working with and in schools (Directors of Education, Quality Improvement Officers, members of school leadership teams, those working at middle school leadership [e.g. principal teachers of subjects], subject teachers, young people and parents). 

We are still gathering and analysing our data, but we have found some interesting findings from this research which align with the OECD findings; conversely, we also have some findings that suggest divergence and the need for greater urgency.  

All too often, teachers report a concern for not teaching subjects with passion across both the BGE and Senior Phase. The former is related to the integrated nature of teaching across some school subjects in the BGE stage (e.g. social sciences and sciences), where teachers reported that they did not feel confident in teaching subjects outwith their area of expertise (due to lacking in-depth subject knowledge). Teachers also reported that they felt that learner experience was compromised when young people were taught by non-subject specialists, because learning was ‘superficial’ due to the teachers’ lack of in-depth subject knowledge. Therefore, some Principal Teachers commented that they decided to develop the BGE as discrete subjects because of staff preference. This raises questions about the alignment of the specialist knowledge of the current teaching workforce with the goals and principles of CfE; bluntly, are we educating and accrediting the right categories of teachers (if we are serious about CfE) and, if not, do we need changes to our systems for ITE and recognition of teacher status by the GTCS? This issue was not raised by the OECD in its review. The latter issue, which was a major focus in the OECD report, is similarly an issue of misalignment of current systems and practices with CfE; that the focus on exams, assessment, and outcomes where teachers report high levels of accountability for ensuring they help their school and local authority to achieve prescribed levels of attainment has undermined the development of CfE (see below).  

Further, in our survey of secondary school leaders, we asked them to consider their school’s context and to what extent this influenced and informed the design and provision of their school’s BGE and Senior phasey. Our survey findings highlight that the availability and ability of staff is a ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ influential factor (78% in the BGE; 79% in the Senior Phase). Further, data gathered from a range of secondary school staff across Scotland highlight the lack of time in allowing them to design and feed into the curriculum provision and curriculum making in their school. For example, at present, teachers across our focus groups have voiced concern that they lack sufficient time to develop quality lessons – let alone develop the wider curriculum. There was a sense of frustration that they were not able to devote the time that they wanted to lesson planning because much of their time is spent on ‘bureaucracy’ (e.g. administration and measures of accountability, such as ‘tracking’). Further, teachers reported their time was often taken up providing cover for staff absence – with the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbating these pressures. Consequently, many teachers reported that they and their colleagues were teaching during their non-contact time to ensure learners were taught by a subject specialist and receiving a ‘good experience’ in their department. 

The OECD report identifies that, in order to best support the ambitious nature of CfE, there needs to be more support for school staff in order to provide them with the time for curriculum planning and making – in order to achieve a fundamental CfE aim of allowing practitioners to develop localised and contextualised curriculum provision (Recommendation 3.1). The report also noted the significant amount of class contact time for Scottish teachers compared to the OECD average. Above, our findings from our research support the OECD recommendation for the need to ‘dedicate and ring-fence time’ for all teachers for curriculum planning, monitoring of student achievement and to support assessment and moderation. However, there is caution regarding the OECD’s note that the reduction of class contact time can only make sense when the teaching workforce is suitably qualified and has demonstrated such capacity to innovate and collaborate on curriculum-making. Many teachers in our focus groups spoke of simply not having the time, and not having the support of their senior leadership team and/or local authority, in order to invest in their own professional learning. Therefore, there is a balance to be struck between the reduction of class contact time and ensuring equitable opportunities for teachers to develop the knowledge and skills required to enable them to lead and plan curriculum at the local level. 

On the other hand, our data gathered to date, suggests that it is not as simple as a tension between high rates of class contact time and the CfE aim of encouraging teachers to develop curriculum at the school level. We have also found that the narrow focus on attainment and accountability systems narrowly defines teaching and education, whilst limiting the success of CfE, especially in the Senior Phase. This is supported by the OECD recommendation 3.3 which has identified a need to align the qualification system and curriculum of CfE, with the report noting, ‘…[the] absence of alignment between curriculum and assessment is the single biggest barrier to the implementation of CfE’ (OECD, 2021, p.127). Considering the wider political and social context within which CfE and the Scottish education system operates, during the OECD seminar to present the key findings of their analysis on Monday 21st June, Beatriz Pont (Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills) commented that CfE cannot work in a vacuum due to the range of policies that have been developed to tackle more nuanced issues within the same. She highlighted the vast range of policies (for example, Getting It Right For Every Child, Developing the Young Workforce, National Improvement Framework, Attainment Challenge) which risk overloading the Scottish education system and lead to a reactive, rather than pro-active policy approach.  The OECD report identifies that there is room for simplification and progression in order to align these policies further with CfE (Recommendation 3.2), so that ‘the efforts of school and system leadership can be re-focused on student learning, which is at the heart of CfE’ (OECD, 2021, p. 125). We would further argue that there is a need for systemic thinking about the curriculum; that simplification needs to be accompanied by a clear sense of how policies align with each other and articulate across different layers of the education system (see: Priestley et al., 2021). 

From our survey data, we found that some key policies in Scottish education hold low levels of influence with regards to curriculum planning and making. For example, across both the BGE and Senior Phase the Four Capacities have low levels of influence for senior leaders when designing and providing their school curriculum (60% and 51% respectively)1. This means just under half of senior school leaders do not see the Four Capacities as ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ influential in the design of their senior phase provision. Turning to the OECD report, the authors note there is a misalignment between student assessment, the four capacities and CfE philosophies in relation to the senior phase. Further, there is the suggestion that modes of assessment need to be identified that could be better suited to the curriculum model. However, it is fundamental to note that our survey data raises questions and concerns over how curriculum design and provision are being influenced – key to knowing how to then minimise the prevalence of these influence(s), in order to maximise the influence of the key principles of CfE. Looking back to our survey findings, the use of data is fundamental to decision-making (more so at the Senior Phase compared to the BGE). At the Senior Phase level, school leaders report high levels of influence for data: Positive Destinations data (79%); attainment data (78%), and the Insight benchmarking tool (73%). Therefore, it can be suggested that decisions are being informed and led by narrow definitions of success and focusing narrowly on only one of the Four Capacities, the ‘successful learner’; this in turn may undermine the remaining three capacities and the underlying principles of the Four Capacities in creating well-rounded individuals. Where the responsibility for the lack of incorporation of the Four Capacities across the full curriculum lies remains to be seen – and we await with interest the findings of the OECD’s report on the Scottish system of qualifications and assessment – but, as previously mentioned, teachers across our focus groups commonly cite the accountability measures in place to ensure they help their school and local authority to achieve prescribed levels of attainment. This can range from weekly attainment meetings, to regular use of data, to minimising subject choices if expected grades would not be high enough. However, as noted by one participant, ‘data is central to what we do but it is not the be all and end all’. 

There are also concerns arising from our data which suggest the ambiguous roles of the SQA, Education Scotland and Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs). Indeed, the OECD report has commented on the need for a review of the roles of Education Scotland and the Inspectorate, and the consideration of the role of the SQA alongside the potential for a new, stand-alone curriculum agency (Recommendation 3.3). There was also acknowledgement of how Scottish education is ‘…a busy system at risk of policy and institutional overload’ (OECD, 2021, p. 117). Teachers from our study felt education objectives are not being aligned across the Scottish Government, Education Scotland, SQA, and the RICs – leading to an environment of too many layers, but also overlapping and competing agendas with bodies and agencies confused about their purpose(s). Therefore, our findings suggest that the ‘at risk’ has already materialised, with effects commonly felt across the system by teachers.  

Finally, the OECD report under recommendation 3 calls for the development of a systematic approach to curriculum review (Recommendation 3.4). This recommendation recognises the potential of regular reviews led by a stand-alone agency (Recommendation 3.2), in order to provide ‘a systematic, more apolitical approach’ (OECD 2021, p. 129) to the review process in Scotland, which is seen widely as being currently reactive to the politicised nature of Scottish education. There was also an acknowledgement in the OECD report of the need, within this review process, to consult and engage with a range of stakeholders in an impactful and meaningful manner.  This perception has been echoed across our data, from Directors of Education to subject teachers, demonstrating clear frustration that education is commonly used as a ‘political football’. Participants would like decision making to be led by educators rather than politicians, so that there can be an open debate about the future of education, which is inclusive of dissenting voices. Other recommendations within the OECD report (Recommendations 2.1 and 4.1) seek to highlight the need for a range of voices to influence the design and provision of CfE. Further, the initial Scottish Government response has been accepting of the need to engage further with key stakeholders, especially children and young people through the establishment of a Children and Young People’s Education Council – although we also note debate as to whether this is the right approach to engaging children and young people.

However, consultation and engagement can only go so far, as can redefining the institutional structures, and ensuring alignment across policies. A recurring trend across our data (survey, qualitative, as well as secondary analysis of data from the Scottish Longitudinal Study) lies a concerning issue surrounding student equity, across school, local authority and national levels. The issues arise from the variability in place surrounding the organisation of the school curriculum (e.g. 2 year pathways to National 5s aligning a school/local authority with the pre-CfE 2+2+2 curriculum model rather than the 3+3 model which aligns more closely with the intentions of CfE), the number of subjects studied in both the BGE and Senior Phase, and the choice of subjects and awards on offer in schools. This variance has consequences for student outcomes, and, most importantly, system equity. Therefore, there is a fine line to be trod in allowing for more flexibility and more localised curriculum making, when there is already a concern of too much contextualisation leading to inequity and a lack of parity of opportunity across the system (see also the OECD slides where this underlying tension is noted). The OECD report suggests the newly formed, standalone curriculum agency would help to monitor and find ‘…the most effective balance between flexibility and prescription and between personalisation and equity’ (OECD, 2021, p. 126). However, in a system where prescriptive measures of achievement, and local and national accountability measures, alongside the (mis)use of data to inform discussions around curriculum making, are embedded – can the inspirational CfE policies ever work in practice or do we need more systemic – and important cultural – change?  


  • OECD (2021), Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future, Implementing Education Policies, OECD Publishing, Paris,
  • Priestley, M., Philippou, S., Alvunger, D. & Soini, T. (2021). Curriculum Making: A conceptual framing. In: M. Priestley, D. Alvunger, S. Philippou. & T. Soini, Curriculum making in Europe: policy and practice within and across diverse contexts. Bingley: Emerald. 
  • Shapira, M., Priestley, M., Peace-Hughes, T., Barnett, C. & Ritchie, M. (2021). Preliminary findings from the secondary school leaders survey: a summary. Nuffield Project, Working Paper No. 2. Stirling: University of Stirling,  

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit 

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