BBC Scotland with Gordon Brewer (1 March 2020)

BBC Scotland with Gordon Brewer (1 March 2020)

Talking with Gordon Brewer on BBC Scotland on the current progressive Scottish curriculum and the impact on the numeracy and literacy skills of children in Scottish schools.

A transcript of my interview is below. 

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GB: Well, Stephen Curran, you’re not a fan of ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, to put it mildly?

SC: No, I’m not. I see it as a highly progressive curriculum which largely is a throwback to the 1960’s. There are real problems with this, because there isn’t really core teaching of a traditional kind. Take for example maths, children are not really learning clear technique, they are doing a very exploratory approach. It’s really important in Primary School to equip children with key skills in Numeracy and Literacy. We see in the PISA ratings, I know they are not the be-all and end-all of everything, but we see a clear indication of a fall in performance. Of course, it’s easy for politicians to try and shoot the messenger, and not listen to the message.

GB: You refer to the PISA results, they are about 15 year-olds, but you are saying the main problem is in the primary system.

SC: Well, I think if we look at what’s happened in England, since the introduction of the new curriculum in 2014 which was more traditional, I advised on that curriculum, and it had key things like teaching of number, decimals and fractions in a more structured way and not following a really exploratory and experimental kind of approach. We’ve seen a rise in children’s performance and we can see from 2015, where England was pitched at 26 on the PISA ratings, say in maths, it’s now up to 17. Whereas Scotland is languishing in exactly the same place it was in 2015, [in] 2018, no change. If you look back to where they were in PISA ratings on the 72 countries that were tested, you can see that they were number 9 back in the early 2000’s. So, something is clearly going wrong and I think that politicians need to acknowledge this, rather than trying to hide.

GB: A word you used right at the beginning of this interview, you talked about ‘Progressive Education’. What is it? ‘Cause, a lot of people will think, “progressive, well that sounds like it’s good”. What do you mean by that?

SC: I’m not anti-progressive, in the sense that I believe that children should be free thinking, they should explore. But, when they get into Primary School, we need to teach them something. You can’t carry on an exploratory approach right through Primary School, you introduce clear technique. Now, the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, I’ve looked at it closely. It’s vague, it’s confusing, it’s wishy-washy. Quite frankly, when I looked at the curriculum in England before the one that replaced it in 2014, it was exactly the same.

GB: Well, one of the things I found interesting about your blog, was your suggestion, which may be right or wrong, but you seem to be arguing that one of the things about the Scottish Education System in say the late 90’s and 80’s and 70’s, was that although Scotland was quite Left Wing in a way, perhaps even compared to England, in terms of the actual curriculum, it was very traditional, they weren’t interesting in the kind of ideas that were floating around at that time and being influential in England and your argument seems to be that just at the point England has realised “that’s not a good idea, we’d better get back to basics”, Scotland started mucking about with the stuff that’s gone out of fashion in England.

SC: I think that’s a fairly good assessment of it. You know, I don’t want to say that exploration, experimentation, [and] discovery are wrong. Of course they’re not. I mean, I’m a teacher. I’ve been a teacher for 35 years, and I believe in that. But, there have clearly been real mistakes that have been made. Just look at Singapore, they have the best maths kids in the world. Really, what are they doing? They’ve largely taken our curriculum from 50 / 60 years ago and they’re using that. Ok, they’ve made adaptations to it. There’s developments. But, success comes from when you see what works, and you do it. That’s clearly worked. I’ve advocated against a lot of opposition that the curriculum that we got through in 2014, which is not perfect incidentally. It’s a lot better than it was. We can now see improvements actually happening and I think that’s a wonderful thing for the children.

GB: Ok, just briefly, if you were advising the Scottish Government, what would you say they should do, “Scrap Curriculum for Excellence”, or “Build in the more traditional core elements into it”?

SC: Well, I think it is a blend. You have to build in the more core traditional elements. You have to make sure that when children leave Primary School, they know their times tables, that they can add, subtract, multiply, divide. They have clear, basic understanding of algorithms in maths. You know, I’m using maths as an example, because that’s where I advised, but I also believe across the curriculum as well, that we teach solid numeracy and literacy and make sure children are equipped for Secondary School. Because, to be honest, once they are in Secondary School, it’s very hard to correct it, because the children are running from classroom to classroom. If a child has got problems in numeracy and literacy it’s really hard to solve it and it has to be solved in Primary School.

GB: We’ll leave it there. Dr Stephen Curran, look thank you for joining us this morning.