Evaluation of curriculum design in Scotland: Designing a high-quality curriculum

Interdisciplinary learning

Interdisciplinary learning (IDL) is a planned experience that enables children and young people to learn across and beyond individual curriculum areas. It remains an underutilised element of curriculum design across all sectors. There remains lack of clarity regarding high-quality IDL and how it is distinct from other approaches to organising learning.

National and local efforts are needed to provide staff with a better understanding of the principles and benefits of IDL. Enhancing this understanding among staff will better equip them to facilitate rich learning contexts where children and young people to learn and apply knowledge and skills.

In schools that deliver high-quality IDL, teachers draw on experiences and outcomes from different curricular areas or subjects. They have a clear understanding of the purpose of IDL, whether it is to develop knowledge, understanding or skills in new and different ways or deepen learning by revisiting concepts or skills from different perspectives. Furthermore, teachers support learners’ progression by building on their previous learning considering next steps.

Digital approaches to learning

Developing and improving digital approaches to enhance the curriculum remains a key focus for staff across all sectors. Building on the skills and experiences of periods of remote learning, staff use digital technology more routinely to deliver elements of the curriculum. However, availability of and access to digital learning is still a challenge across the country. Barriers include:

  • intermittent or poor connectivity which disrupts online work
  • websites and applications which are blocked by individual local authority systems

As a result, children and young people’s experiences of digital technology across Scotland vary significantly. Local authority and school staff need to work together to ensure that all learners have suitable, equitable access to digital technology to support the delivery of the curriculum where appropriate

Meeting local needs

Schools and settings are empowered to, and responsible for, ensuring that their curriculum meets local needs. Staff across sectors are taking important steps to design curriculums that are relevant to their learners, both now and in the future.

Factors such as the socio-economic context, wellbeing, an increase in children and young people who require additional support, local employment opportunities, diversity within the community and rurality are all features which staff factor in when designing their curriculum. For example, staff are strengthening links with local employers to support the curriculum through work placements that support young people to move into positive employment.

There remains a tension, however, between designing a curriculum at school level which takes account of national guidance whilst also meeting local needs. The increased focus staff have placed on raising attainment in literacy and numeracy in some schools has reduced the focus on improvements across other curricular areas. In addition, staff find it challenging to deliver breadth whilst also ensuring progression in learning across all curriculum areas.

There is scope for staff, across all sectors, to consider more closely local needs and the opportunities within the local context when planning the curriculum. This will help ensure that the curriculum is relevant to children and young people’s lives. In addition, there needs to be a greater focus, both locally and nationally, on the curriculum preparing young people to meet the changing local, national and global societal and economic needs.

In Gaelic Medium Education (GME), schools, culture and language influence the ethos and life of the school and elements of the curriculum. This includes through poetry, art and music. Staff in schools with large refugee communities, with children and young people learning English as an additional language plan the curriculum to support and celebrate identity and heritage. This includes organising and engaging in-school and community events and adapting curricular programmes. This helps learners to feel part of the wider community and to better understand their role as effective contributors and global citizens.

Promoting equity and addressing poverty-related attainment gaps

Senior leaders and staff across sectors have a very strong understanding of the socio-economic context impacting children, young people and their families. Staff work sensitively to help address issues that are having an impact on the lives of families. They make considerable efforts to ensure that the cost of the school day is not a barrier for children and young people to access the curriculum.

Senior leaders make use of Pupil Equity Funding where appropriate and seek additional grants or funding when needed. This enables staff to promote equity by subsidising educational outings, events or curriculum activity in areas such as food science, technologies or music. Staff have taken steps to ensure that the curriculum is designed to support children and young people to reflect on and learn about equity.

Senior leaders recognise the benefit of supporting all children and young people to develop a wide range of skills to address the poverty-related attainment gap. This is evident from the range of activities, approaches and flexibility they have built into the curriculum for individuals and groups of children. For example, staff design the curriculum to support children to develop social skills and resilience.

Senior leaders and staff use data well to identify children and young people who would benefit from targeted interventions. They adapt curricular programmes to address identified attainment gaps, particularly in literacy and numeracy. Staff in secondary schools develop a range of flexible learning pathways to meet individual needs.

Overall, whilst staff in schools and settings respond well to individual needs as they arise, it is not always clear how the curriculum has been designed to close poverty-related attainment gaps. There is scope for closer consideration of how the curriculum is designed to raise the attainment of all children, whilst closing gaps in attainment for identified learners, including those impacted by poverty.

Supporting positive wellbeing

Staff make considerable efforts to ensure that their wellbeing curriculum is relevant and accessible to all children and young people. Staff across sectors have been quick to respond to children and young people’s changing health and wellbeing needs and adapting the curriculum to meet these. For example, since COVID-19, staff have redesigned the curriculum to have a greater focus on improving mental and emotional wellbeing. They take steps to develop a curriculum which supports individual wellbeing needs, whilst also developing all children’s and young people’s understanding of how to be healthy and manage wellbeing.  

Using the local area 

Across early learning and childcare (ELC), special and primary sectors, staff make good use of the local area as a context for learning across the curriculum. They use local shops, parkland, forest and beach areas to deliver interesting, relevant and motivating learning experiences.

Primary school staff make increasing use of the historical context of their local area to support learning in social studies. In secondary schools, there are examples of individual departments making use of the geographical location and historical context in the local area to support learning.  

Learning outdoors is becoming a more common feature of the curriculum. Staff recognise the health and wellbeing benefits for children and young people when they learn outdoors. They identify the opportunities the outdoors presents for children and young people to access the curriculum in different ways and to develop and apply skills and knowledge in new contexts. Staff are increasingly using school grounds and the local area to provide meaningful opportunities for children and young people to develop skills for learning, life and work.  

Almost all ELC settings visited provide well-established free-flow access to outdoor spaces. A few settings noted physical constraints that limited their ability to provide free-flow outdoor learning despite a strong desire to do so. They continue to provide a wide range of interesting outdoor experiences to develop children’s natural curiosity. They use local woodlands well to facilitate forest school experiences to provide stimulating and challenging play experiences.  

This approach is also becoming more established in primary schools. Children in primary schools increasingly access well-planned outdoor learning across a range of environments and across an increasing range of curricular areas. Staff in secondary school departments, such as geography and science, make good use of outdoor spaces.

Staff support young people to gain accreditation through their outdoor learning, for example through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Staff across sectors now need to ensure that they develop outdoor learning pathways to enable children and young people to build progressively on their skills. 

Transition, coherence and progression 

Children and young people are entitled to experience a curriculum which is coherent and progressive. Transitions are an important aspect of this. Staff support children and young people well pastorally to move to the next stage of their learning. However, staff need to do more to ensure that learning communities design a curriculum that effectively supports children and young people at key points of transition. They should ensure that children and young people build effectively on their prior learning at all stages of their learning journey. 

Across the ELC settings visited, staff work together well with school staff to build on play opportunities across the early level. Staff working in specialist ASN settings plan well for individual children to ensure that the curriculum is designed to meet children’s needs at their points of transition.

Staff across the primary and secondary schools we visited work collaboratively to jointly plan for successful transition to high school. In addition, staff work well together to provide enhanced transitions for those young people requiring additional support with their learning or wellbeing. In the most effective examples, the transitions ensure that the children continue to build on their prior learning in some curricular areas. However, staff could do more to ensure that children and young people receive progression and coherence in learning across the curriculum at all points of transition.  

Secondary staff often report that curriculum transition is challenging when young people who have moved up from several associated primary schools have experienced different curriculum content when they reach S1. At times, young people repeat assessments or learning in S1 which they already covered when they were in primary. This impacts on their motivation, engagement and progression in learning. This impact is reduced when staff have a shared focus on ensuring the curriculum is designed to ensure progression in learning across an associated school group.

There are examples of staff across associated primary schools and a secondary school working together to design projects across different curricular areas which children start in P7 and complete in S1. In other examples, staff focus on ensuring enhanced challenge in within the curriculum for children working beyond CfE second level. These approaches support children to build on their prior learning, most notably in literacy and numeracy. In other examples, shared teaching by staff between primary and secondary schools has a positive impact on children’s progression across the curriculum. Staff across sectors need to work together collectively on jointly designed curriculum transition to support children to build more effectively on their prior learning across the BGE.  

Staff in secondary schools plan effectively in collaboration with partners to promote positive destinations beyond school, into employment or further learning. This collaboration includes work with Skills Development Scotland (SDS) colleagues and college staff. Careers fairs and events are common and appreciated by families and organisations alike. These help support young people to transition to positive destinations in the workplace or to further or higher education. 

Challenges and barriers to designing and developing the curriculum 

Whilst challenges vary from school to school, common themes arise in relation to designing and delivering the curriculum. The particular challenges in developing the curriculum that staff cite are:  

  • recruitment and retention of staff 
  • budget constraints 
  • lack of specialism in particular subjects

HM Inspectors know from wider inspection evidence that delivering children’s and young people’s entitlement to two modern languages is challenging in schools where staff do not have the necessary skills or knowledge to deliver this aspect of the curriculum. In some secondary schools, small subject-specialist staff teams and/or staff shortages in specific subjects present challenges in developing and delivering the curriculum.  

Creative approaches to overcoming these challenges include developing links with other local schools and colleges. This can increase learner choice across subject areas and courses.  

Finding time for staff to work together within and across settings can be challenging, particularly in rural areas. Ongoing staff professional learning is essential if children and young people are to receive a curriculum that continues to meet their needs. However, incorporating sufficient time for all staff to undertake professional learning also presents an ongoing challenge for senior leaders.  
Balancing the need for both whole-establishment curriculum design alongside the development of individual curricular areas is important. In early learning and childcare settings, achieving this can be further complicated by the differing contractual arrangements and working hours of staff. These obstacles require flexible and imaginative strategies which ensure that all members of staff are included in professional learning. Where senior leaders protect time for staff to work together to review and improve the curriculum, staff feel valued and develop increased understanding of standards and expectations within curriculum areas.  

A considerable challenge for staff in all schools is balancing breadth and depth of learning whilst still offering children and young people personalisation and choice in their curriculum. Most primary schools and early learning and childcare settings offer effective opportunities for personalisation and choice as part of their curriculum structures. For example, staff offer children the choice of topics to learn through and support children to have some choice in what and how they learn. This is helping children in a few schools to choose tasks which are at the right level of challenge for them. However, covering the breadth and depth of learning across the experiences and outcomes in all curricular areas remains a challenge.  

At the secondary stages, staff provide personalisation and choice through subject options at different stages, and through wider involvement in the work of the school. Staff offer experiences and outcomes which include developing skills and knowledge in social enterprise and ‘world of work' initiatives. Young people choose from a range of accredited awards, partnership links with colleges and community initiatives to tailor their choices to their preferences. This is often aligned to leadership opportunities, for example as young sports leaders.  

Staff in ASN settings are skilled at designing individualised programmes tailored to meet the targets and commitments in formal plans for each child or young person.  

Moving forward, senior leaders will need to continue to work with their staff teams within and across schools to find creative solutions to balance the challenges they face in their local areas.