New blog, new network…

Published by Professor Mark Priestley

This is the inaugural post on the new blog for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stirling.

The blog coincides with the launch of the new Stirling Network for Curriculum Studies, which is the focus of this article. The Network has been established to address a particular challenge, namely the long-term decline of curriculum studies as a field of scholarly study and a concomitant erosion of the craft knowledge required for school-based curriculum development. In recent times, many governments have developed new forms of national curriculum that increasingly require teachers to act as professional curriculum makers and as active curriculum agents in their schools.
Issues surrounding these trajectories are clearly illustrated by the 2015 publication of the OECD report, Improving Schools in Scotland, which identifies a number of priorities for the future development of CfE, including:

  • A simplification of the policy guidance, which has become over-complex.
  • A strengthening of the ‘middle’ tier of the education system (e.g. local authorities), which currently falls short as a support infrastructure for schools developing the curriculum.A comprehensive enactment of the curriculum in schools; our research (e.g. see Curriculum Development Through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry and Curriculum for Excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but. . .’) suggests that development of CfE has been partial at best in many schools.
  • Better use of research to underpin the development of policy and greater levels of dialogue between government agencies and academic researchers.

The new Network has been established with these concerns in mind. It will provide a forum for the development of theory relating to the curriculum. It will provide opportunities for dialogue between researchers and other stakeholders to inform the development of policy and practice. And it will stimulate networks of academic researchers, with the aim of fostering research in this key policy area. I want to conclude this short post by illustrating, with an example, how the Network can contribute to raising the quality of discourse surrounding curriculum development.

Curriculum is widely [mis]understood as a statement of content to be taught, often expressed as assessable outcomes and linked to accountability practices. Such understandings inevitably lead to problematic development of the curriculum in schools, often characterised by audit approaches – the ticking of boxes, for instance – and a narrow, often instrumental approach to implementing policy (for example, the widespread practice of re-teaching the same topic in successive years in the History senior phase, as the basics do not have to be covered, and the focus can be instead placed on depth and exam technique). This conception of curriculum has been accompanied by the widespread use of the ‘delivery’ metaphor; curriculum thus becomes little more than a product, developed by policymakers and uncritically delivered by practitioners.

Such thinking is inadequate for a number of reasons, not least because it fails to take account of the complex social processes in play as teachers translate policy into practice. Conceptually, in order to avoid this, it is useful to view curriculum as a multi-layered field of practice.

  • At the macro-level of policy, the curriculum can be usefully conceptualised as a set of big ideas – a statement of intent – for framing professional practice. Early CfE policy took this view explicitly, ‘looking at the curriculum differently’ In this view, the proper function of the macro-level is to formulate frameworks that provide intellectual resources for the development of curriculum in schools. It is not to prescribe in detail what should be taught and how it should be taught.
  • At the meso-level of policy development (i.e. the middle), there are questions relating to its function within the system. For example, should this function be defined in terms of support for professional practice in schools (i.e. a leadership role)? Or should it relate to the production of documentation that reinterprets macro-level policy. Or should it be about audit and inspection? These are important questions, as such functions shape how the curriculum is developed in schools.
  • At the micro-level of the educational institution, the curriculum relates to educational practices that are developed to fit the big ideas of the curriculum. This requires both informed professional judgement and flexibility in interpretation to meet local needs. I have written regularly on my own blog about the processes required for this type of engagement.

Such a shift in thinking has significant practical implications. Systematic reflection about the concept ‘curriculum’ – what it means, how it functions in different fields of practice, what educational practices relate to it – is necessary as a precursor to undertaking curriculum development – at all levels of the system.

There is currently a need to strengthen the meso-level, as identified by the OECD. Part of this strengthening can be achieved by reconfiguring its function. Instead of regimes of accountability there should be an emphasis on the provision of high quality leadership for curriculum development in schools. This might, for example, take the form, for example, of hands-on leadership of curriculum development processes (e.g. collaborative professional enquiry).

In order to achieve this, we need urgently to build the capacity within the system for curriculum leadership; surely a worthy role for the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. And there may be a further implication; that the current middle (comprising local authorities, for example) is simply not fit for purpose, and needs to be replaced by a different model. This is, of course, a challenge currently being faced by the Scottish government as it conducts its present review of Governance – and it is to be hoped that the new Network will be able to inform its development.

About the author

Professor Mark Priestley  is currently Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. He started his career in education as a teacher of History, working in a number of secondary schools in England and New Zealand, where he also taught Geography, RE, Humanities and Social Studies. In New Zealand, Mark was the Coordinating Lecturer of Christchurch College of Education’s Nelson campus from January 1999 until June 2000. Since arriving at the former School of Education at Stirling in 2001, Mark has taken on a number of roles. He was Director of Initial Teacher Education between 2004 and 2007, and Director of the First Year Educational Studies Programme between 2009 and 2011. Read more.