Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Curriculum for Excellence’s problematic benchmarks

Tom Strang

I’m passionate about Scottish Education and though I’ve been away from the chalkface for 17 years, I still like to think I can offer some kind of advice as to what has gone wrong and what steps might be taken to reverse the decline as shown in the recent Pisa Tests.

I believe that a curriculum, based on skills only, can not stand up to scrutiny without the relevant knowledge needed to develop and build these skills.

And that is where the problem lies.

In 2011, we at TeeJay Publishers received, as every other teacher did, a loose set of (basically) skills by the Scottish Government pertaining to each Level, Early, First and Second, and like all in education, eagerly awaited the breakdown of the knowledge which should be appended to each level and which would have allowed teachers to concentrate on what the Government expected them to teach.

That information came around about 2017 with the “benchmarks”. Six years after Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was introduced! TeeJay realised in 2011 that a contents list for each level was unlikely to be produced any time soon, but it was that six year gap that primarily caused every teacher in every Primary school in Scotland to struggle in their attempts to create a working curriculum for their own class, in some cases devoid of the knowledge attained by the class before them or the one following on.

Chaos ensued with multiple opinions on what was actually expected of them to teach.

With that in mind, as we began in 2011 to create our CfE Textbooks and support materials, we first of all created a curricular overview in which we expanded and detailed exactly what we at TeeJay believed would be expected of pupils in order to attain the knowledge (and skills) for each Level, Early to Four, and we supplied this overview free, via our web-site, to every school in Scotland. It was downloaded thousands of times. This was in 2011/2012.

When the “benchmarks” were eventually produced around 2017, they were remarkably similar (95%) to our own curricular overview.

We made a mistake though and I see that now.

The trouble with giving a detailed contents list for Level 1 (P2-4) and Level 2 (P5-7) was that is was geared to the end-points. i.e. P4 and P7.

What we should have done, and what I’m suggesting now, is that a detailed contents list should have been created for EACH year-group and the reason for that is as follows.

The pressure to gain a Level 1 or Level 2 “pass” at present rests entirely on the P4 and P7 class teacher. These of course can be assessed using National Tests or in fact using our “End of Level Diagnostic Assessments”.

The problem with that is that nowhere in P2, P3, P5 or P6 is there any real expectation of where a class, or an individual child, should be on the journey to complete the relevant Level.

Why are pupils in England, who were 10 points behind us in Maths in 2006, now over 20 points (1 year) ahead of us in 2022, according to Pisa ?

Our Scottish resources were extremely successful and by 2018, we were supplying textbooks and support packs to almost every Primary and Secondary school in Scotland from ages 5 to 18.

In 2014, we decided to produce similar resources for England and I began to look at the new National curriculum being produced. I knew at that time, that the former curriculum up to that point was very vague and standards there were behind us, thanks at that time to Scotland’s fairly well prescribed 5-14 detailed set of course outlines.

What I realised in their new curriculum was that unlike Scotland’s vague curricular “guidelines”, England’s course details were extremely well proscribed and not only that, they detailed exactly where each year-group were expected to be and in fact they provided pertinent assessment materials for each teacher to follow and apply.

Though our books did not take off – (we were too small and did not have the marketing skills to make inroads), other English based publishers began to create knowledge based resources that appeared to have raised the standards in English schools.

I believe it was the detailed descriptors for each year-group and the inbuilt assessment programme insisted upon, that improved the teaching of Maths in English schools and I also believe, we can make inroads in tackling the fall in Standards in Scottish schools over, in particular, the last 10-12 years.

Back in the 90’s, my wife remembers Renfrewshire’s “Red Book” which was a list of topics, their depth and when they had to be taught. She also, as a Head Teacher, came up with 40 week planners for her staff, detailing a whole year’s teaching plan.

I no longer have any connection to the TeeJay Resources being produced as we passed on that mantle when we sold TeeJay to Hodder in 2019.

Tom Strang was a maths teacher for nearly 40 years, ending as PT Maths at Clydebank High School for 20 years. In 1994 he set up TeeJay Maths with his brother John and friends Jim Geddes and James Cairns (maths teachers). Latterly TeeJay were the largest suppliers of maths Textbooks and support packs, selling to over 95% of all Scottish Schools from aged 5 to aged 18.