Is Curriculum for Excellence a ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’?

For the past 8 years, Scotland has functioned on Curriculum for Excellence as a means for educating children. A curriculum that was created with a lot of hard work from government officials over a long period of time. However, many people would argue that the way the curriculum was formed has many flaws. One argument being, there was no communication with teachers until the curriculum had been made. Another argument is that education in Scotland is not as good as it could be and that, Curriculum for Excellence, is failing (BBC, 2017).

Which begs the question.. Could Curriculum for Excellence be a sunken cost?

A sunk cost is defined as something which has had a lot of work, time and money put into it by a company making them reluctant to stop or change it even if it starts to fail (Cambridge University, 2018). Priestley and Humes (2010) discuss Curriculum for Excellence in detail, more specifically the four capacities, what they mean and the general success of the curriculum. After being on placement, I witnessed a lack in cause for the four capacities meaning they were rarely mentioned and children were not aware of them. Priestley and Humes (2010) highlight that the four capacities have the potential to be highly beneficial, however, they currently are not used effectively in schools. Considering the four capacities role in the curriculum and what they stand for, children lacking awareness of them would suggest the way the curriculum is presented is failing as the foundations of the curriculum are not being discussed with pupils. Additionally, Priestley and Humes (2010) focus on the aims of the curriculum and put forward the argument that Curriculum for Excellence is not about the content but more about getting the right results. After experiencing placement, I can understand this argument as although what is learnt is essential. In maths, for example, we do not provide an education that allows children to have a deep understanding of maths, just an education which will enable them to pass a test.

A massive issue in education currently is Maths Anxiety in young children and can be caused by various things – failure, embarrassment or confusion. I believe that the way our curriculum is designed prohibits us from meeting every child’s needs. Realistically, with a curriculum so broad and full, we do not have time to spend ages on one topic to ensure a child understands – so most teachers move on. In terms of Liping Ma’s (2010) theory on the four concepts which make up a profound understanding of fundamental maths, pupils opportunities to experience these is limited due to the extent of the curriculum. Whilst having a wide variety of subject areas is beneficial, a curriculum which has too much crammed into it will result in students feeling stupid and anxious for not understanding a concept. If a child experiences this it can affect their confidence massively, and maths anxiety can start to form (University of Cambridge, 2017). If a child is experiencing Maths Anxiety the effects to their education can be significantly damaging as they will be reluctant to learn. The Scottish curriculum can be restrictive in terms of how we are supposed to teach things that it has the potential to damage the understanding of a child rather than enhance it. Going back to Priestley and Humes (2010) argument about the curriculum only providing what is needed for passing tests, could a lack of fundamental understanding be contributing to Maths Anxiety?. If we only teach children what they need to know to pass, how are they ever going to understand the real processes behind the maths they learn and how to link it to other areas?

The BBC (2017) put forward the idea that the current state of Curriculum for Excellence could potentially widen an already large attainment gap. Looking into this, it becomes clear that the reasoning for this is that due to the curriculum being so busy, we often turn to homework as a resource to try and consolidate any knowledge we couldn’t during class time. However, not every child is lucky enough to be born into a family which can viably support them through their education at home, therefore, causing children in lower classes to fall behind with homework as they do not have the same support system as someone coming from a numeracy rich environment. For these families, they rely solely on the education they receive at school – yet even then it has the potential to be better.

However, it would be unfair to look at this from a biased view and not consider the opposing argument as not all areas are failing. The Scottish Government (2017)  released statistics relating to the achievement of primary school kids in 2016/2017 in the areas of reading, writing and numeracy. These statistics highlight that pupils under Curriculum for Excellence are actually achieving in these areas with the lowest SIMD quantile at 66% for reading and 67% for numeracy highlighting that when we break down the success of the curriculum, whilst it has its flaws it is also providing young learners with an education. However, this could be improved significantly.

So is CfE a sunk cost? Arguably yes. If we consider the practicality of changing a whole curricular area based on this, it just wouldn’t be realistic. The time and money that would be spent re-educating teachers to ensure there was a deep understanding of maths which they could pass on would be significant. Having spent so much on building the curriculum, educating people to teach it and presenting it to children, we are potentially in too deep to change – even when it is failing some children. No child should have to suffer Maths Anxiety as a result of the curriculum and the way it is taught. If we focus more on teaching children the basic ideas involved in the mathematical concepts they are taught, we could then introduce them to how it connects to everyday life and how they can use what they know to solve problems.

To finish, over the next 5 years, the Scottish government have committed to spending around 750 million pounds on closing the attainment gap (Scottish Government, 2016). The government are potentially putting money towards closing a gap in a curriculum which already has its own flaws. I cannot say for sure that it is a sunk cost, but after the lecture we had surrounding sunk costs, this sounds like it has the potential to be one.



BBC. (2017) New curriculum could be ‘disastrous’, says education expert. Available at: (Accessed: 24 October 2018).

Cambridge Dictionary. (2018) Sunk Cost Fallacy. Available at: (Accessed: 24 October 2018).

Ma, L. (2010) Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Priestley, M. and Humes, W. (2010) The development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and deja vu. Available at: (Accessed: 24 October 2018).

Scottish Government (2017) Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels 2016/2017. Available at: (Accessed: 25 October 2018).

Scottish Government. (2016) Making Maths Count. Available at: (Accessed: 24 October 2018).

The University of Cambridge. (2017) The relationship between maths anxiety and maths performance. Available at: (Accessed: 25 October 2018).

1 thought on “Is Curriculum for Excellence a ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’?

  1. Jonathan

    This was a very interesting discussion. I wonder what kind of information might be needed to make a clearer decision?


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