The Curriculum for Excellence was introduced by the Scottish Government in 2010 – 2011 and was meant to revolutionise education in Scotland by providing children and young people between the ages of 3-18 a coherent, more flexible and enriched curriculum (Education Scotland, undated). In addition, the curriculum includes the totality of experiences which are planned for children and young people through their education, wherever they are being educated. The CFE is meant to be a holistic and child centred curriculum very much like the Scandinavian education systems. However, why might this not be the case? This blog aims to investigate the CFE in a critical manner and this will be used as a comparison to Scandinavian approaches in countries such as Sweden.
Lets travel back to the 1990’s where the 5-14 curriculum was implemented in Scottish schools. I very much remember being in lessons such as maths and English and completing my end of unit level C test. This was a very anxious time as testing was a fairly new concept to me but it now apparent to me that testing was done in order to raise attainment in schools. I distinctly remember some of my friends and classmates would deliberately take a sick day in order not to do the tests which, to me, felt wrong and, in the end, they would need to sit the tests when they came back. It made us feel anxious. As practitioners, it is important that our children are comfortable and feel safe in the school environment. Testing did not make me feel safe and comfortable because I did not want to fail. So why did it change? why was there a big push for a more holistic and child centred curriculum? The Scottish Government wanted to make guidelines more fit for their purpose by providing the right level of detail for teachers so they could maintain the current level of specificity where that makes sense. In addition, the CFE proposed to remove unnecessary detail from existing 5-14 guidelines in curriculum areas such as Expressive Arts and Environmental Studies to allow teachers more flexibility and scope to provide rich and varied experiences, and reduce the time spent on assessment. In addition, the Scottish Government wanted to bring the 3 to 5 and 5-14 curriculum guidelines together to ensure a smooth transition in what children have learned and also in how they learn. This will mean extending the approaches which are used in pre-school into the early years of primary, emphasising the importance of opportunities for children to learn through purposeful, well-planned play. This to me sounds fantastic as children can broaden their horizons through meaningful activities that incorporates play into their every day learning. However, how did the Scottish government come up with the idea to introduce this into the CFE? We need to look over to Scandinavian countries such as Sweden.
In preparation for the CFE for to be implemented into Scottish schools, momentous research had to be carried out and the Scottish government looked towards Scandinavian countries to gain some influence because these countries top the leader boards in an educational sense. With regards to Early years education in these countries, there is a strong financial support for families with young children, and this is fully funded by the state so all young children can have a formal early education. In Sweden, children are guaranteed a place in pre-school for working or studying parents within a few months of applying. There is an emphasis for outdoor learning all year round and the children in these countries are generally more happier and confident from and early age. With regards to Primary Education, the children start at around age 6 or 7 as this is the perfect age to start. In Scotland, there could be children as young as 4 in a Primary 1 class. This is because in Scotland there is a work force interest which is aimed at parents getting back into work sooner in order to contribute back to the economy. As a result, more funding is needed (especially in early years). If a small independent countries can do this, then why can’t we?
In Sweden, children address teachers by their first names unlike here where we say “Mr”, “MRS” or “Miss”. I think it allows the teacher to be seen as a real person instead of a hierarchical figure and this would ultimately allow the children to feel more comfortable. Teachers are trusted and highly respected and in Scotland it could be argued that this is not the case. This point is also emphasised because no inspectors come into Swedish schools. In addition to this, the Swedish school resembles a family home in the sense that the staff and children take their shoes off and the fact that there is a kitchen in every room. This, again, allows the children to ‘feel at home’ and allows the children to feel more comfortable in their education. In pre-school education, the children have meals around the table with the teachers and again emphasises the notion that their schools are like family homes.
In Sweden, there is no testing and the children have unfinished work trays where they can pick and choose to finish work when they want. The work is very much set at the children’s pace and the children can, as a result, take control of their own education. In Scotland, there is a massive incentive for children to finish work as quickly as they can which, I feel, is necessary in some cases for short tasks, but we have to remember that children move at different paces to one another and we need to take differentiation into account. In comparison, Scotland does not have a form of national testing. However, the Scottish Government are trying to re-introduce standardised testing into Scottish Schools in order to raise attainment. However, I think this poses a very big problem. As we know, in every subject area of the CFE there are different levels. For example, children within the first level can range from Primary 1 all the way to Primary 4 – my point being is that how can you give a primary 1 pupil the same test as a standardised test as a primary 4? To me it seems completely unrealistic and I doubt that attainment will raise with in Scottish schools. I believe that the Scottish government is too focussed on statistics and aren’t focussed enough on the children. It seems extremely ironic because the CFE is considered as a ‘child centred’ curriculum and I do not believe that the children are being into account.
Testing out the way, lets get down to the facts. Swedish children feel secure within their education. The less informal approach incorporated by the teachers allows the children to feel relaxed and, as mentioned before, it almost feels like a family home. The children have large amounts of unrestricted floor space to play, build and be creative. This encourages the children to plan their own play and this is not the case in Scottish nurseries where play could be very much structured and the children might not be able to explore freely. The Swedish curriculum is grounded and play and is influenced by the theory of Froebel (the founder of kindergarten). The teachers, who are experts in their field, are there to communicate and understand and respond to the children’s needs. I am convinced this happens in Scottish schools as inclusion is an important matter within the Scottish school setting along with GIRFEC and, naturally, teachers should be empathetic and understanding. However, I feel that there is a hierarchy between teachers and pupil and this could make children feel uncomfortable at times.
According to the Swedish Ministry of Education (1998), ” learning should be based not only on interactions between adults and children, but also what they learn from each other”. This comes back to the idea that communication is key and that collaborative learning is a very useful tool for children and teachers alike. Teachers should constantly be looking for opportunities to learn with the children because knowledge is not found in the child or the adult, its found within the world around them and the beauty of education is finding things out together. Collaborative learning is a huge aspect of the CFE and this is something that works. Its all about experiencing new things everyday and this is why outdoor learning is extremely important in any class in any country. The significant thing about the Swedish curriculum is that it is based on a division of responsibilities where each individual state determines the overall goals and guidelines for the schools within each state. What is alarming is that there is no national curriculum and they are still above Scotland in the ranks.
Therefore, why are Scandinavian countries above us in the rankings and miles ahead of us? Well for starters, the CFE has cherry picked certain aspects from these countries to create the ‘perfect curriculum’ but this cannot be the case unless every aspect has been taken from these Scandinavian approaches. That is why the CFE has been criticised on a national scale for being hollow and unrealistic. Our teachers are anxious about how ‘vague’ the CFE is where as Scandinavian teachers are happy in their work. Fundamentally, it is the children that we should all be thinking about and maybe one day the CFE will be completely child centred and holistic. Well, that is goal and the end of the day.
If you would like to find out more about Swedish education, refer to the video below.