Becoming the Curriculum: Does CfE affect how teachers understand the discipline of history?

Published by Dr Joseph Smith

There has recently been much criticism of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, including a position paper from the Scottish Conservatives and an excoriating blog by Prof Lyndsay Paterson.  Whatever one’s view on these opinions, it is now no longer possible to dismiss emerging issues with CfE as ‘teething problems’.  Curriculum for Excellence was fully implemented in schools six years ago and so we now have cohorts of children whose entire Primary or Secondary educational experience has been shaped by it.  We also have, and this is where my research comes in, a sizeable cohort of teachers who have known no other curriculum. For these teachers, CfE is not a ‘new’ curriculum or a ‘curriculum reform’ but a fact of school life.

The Study

Focusing on my own subject of history, I worked with the Scottish Association of History Teachers, to produce a market-research questionnaire about teachers’ experiences and perceptions of history in CfE, a subject I have written about before. This was a wide-ranging study undertaken primarily as a form of market research for SATH rather than as academic research. 101 responses were received, and respondents were divided into two cohorts: those with more than five years’ teaching experience (n=64) and those with less than five years’ (n=37).

The Findings

The first interesting finding was that teachers who have taught only CfE History were significantly more positive about the curriculum than their more experienced colleagues.

Thinking solely about history in Curriculum for Excellence, how far do you agree that the curriculum gives children a good historical education?[1]
CfE Cohort (n=37) Pre CfE Cohort (n=64)
Agree or Strongly agree 85% 62%

In one sense, this is not surprising; we can assume that these students have been better prepared to work with the curriculum through their university courses, as opposed to more experienced teachers who might have received limited on-the-job training ahead of the new curriculum.  However, it is important to note that the question here refers not to the curriculum in general, but specifically to history, and it is when we look at these differing notions of what constitutes a ‘good historical education’ that more interesting patterns emerge.

When respondents were asked ‘what is the purpose of a historical education?’ there were marked differences between the two cohorts.  The respondents were offered 12 possible justifications and asked to indicate whether or not they agreed with these purposes. Some of the purposes were unique to the study of history (for example, ‘It is important to know about the past for its own sake’). These are known as intrinsic purposes. Other purposes were more instrumental, that is, history was being used as a vehicle for some larger purposes (for example, ‘It helps them to be better citizens’).

Strikingly, 58% of the CfE cohort agreed with all seven of the instrumental aims they were offered, while only 38% of the pre-CfE cohort did likewise (p=0.052, (i.e. there is a 95% probability that this finding was not sheer chance)).  When looking at individual aims for the subject, the largest area of disagreement was over the statement that ‘history makes children proud of the country they live in[2]’ which was agreed with by 64% of CfE-era teachers and only 44% of those trained earlier. Although many national governments continue to view history curriculum as a vehicle to promote patriotism (or more commonly, national cohesion) it is rare to see historians or school teachers taking a similar view.  It is, therefore, something of a surprise that nearly two-thirds of CfE-trained teachers advocated this aim.

A further point of divergence was apparent when teachers were asked for their self-described identities.

Which of the following best describes how you see yourself?
CfE trained cohort


Pre-CfE cohort


I am a history teacher and would rather teach just history 11% 45%
I am a history teacher, but I am happy to teach other subjects 77% 46%
TOTAL ‘I am a  history teacher’ = TRUE 88% 92%

This table shows that pre-CfE teachers were four times more likely to express a preference for just teaching history than the CfE-trained cohort (p=0.0002).

It is possible to view this in common sense terms: that newer teachers are more inclined to be enthusiastic about the interdisciplinary opportunities that CfE promotes, or that more-established teachers are more conservative in their reading of the curriculum. This may well be the case, but when this data is read in light of other findings in the survey, we can propose that more established teachers are more likely to favour intrinsic justifications for history and so feel a stronger subject-affiliation to their subject.

The Implications

The data suggests that the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – which emphasises interdisciplinary learning, citizenship and transferrable skills – coincided with a weakening of teacher’s subject identities and the emergence of a more instrumental view of the purposes of a history education.  In one sense, this is not surprising. School curricula have a long history of making teachers ‘perform’ differently, the phenomenon of ‘teaching to the test’ is the most obvious example.  However, this research suggests not that teachers are doing things differently, but that they have come to think differently about their subject.

I have termed this phenomenon Curricular Epistemic Socialisation and argue that teachers who are, after all, graduate historians, are socialised away from the discipline in which they were trained by the experience of teaching in Curriculum for Excellence.  This was, however, a small survey and there is a need to explore this concept more fully through face-to-face interviews with teachers.

About the author

Dr Joseph Smith came to the University of Stirling in 2015, following spells at Edge Hill and Liverpool Hope Universities. Before moving into higher education, he worked for nine years as a history teacher in secondary schools, with the last five as Head of Department. Joe now lectures on the Initial Teacher Education programme and is a member of the Faculty’s Education Studies Research Group. Read more.


This blog is based on an article entitled: ‘Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and History Teachers’ epistemologies: a case of Curricular Epistemic Socialisation?’ in Scottish Educational Review Vol. 50:1

[1] Surrounding questions in the survey made clear that this question was focused on the junior phase of Curriculum for Excellence, a nuance which is lost when this question is decontextualized.

[2] A weakness of this question was the failure to clarify what respondents understood as ‘the country they live in’ – whether it was Scotland or the UK.