Evaluation of curriculum design in Scotland: National guidance

Senior leaders in all sectors use national guidance well as an essential foundation for curriculum design. They recognise that the guidance helps provide consistency for learners across Scotland, while allowing schools and settings the flexibility to adapt programmes and courses to meet the needs of their local community.

However, senior leaders and staff need to navigate a wide range of guidance and resources available. Staff in a few of the schools visited report that it can be challenging to differentiate between national guidance and published discussion papers. HM Inspectors are finding, through school inspections, that senior leaders and staff across settings and schools would welcome succinct and subject-specific guidance to support curriculum design.

As the Scottish Government responds to recent independent reviews, it will be important that future national guidance is clear, concise, accessible and easy to locate, thereby supporting practitioners.

'Curriculum for Excellence' guidance

Staff across sectors continue to find the CfE guidance documents helpful to inform curriculum design. This includes the Building the Curriculum series, the experiences and outcomes for curricular areas and the national benchmarks.

The refreshed narrative aims to give staff with a clearer focus for curricular development. Staff in the majority of the schools and settings visited are using this narrative to review and refresh elements of their curriculum, in particular refocusing on the four capacities and how these shape and influence their curriculum.

However, senior leaders and staff could do more to use the refreshed narrative when reviewing their curriculum offer so that children and young people develop the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Additionally, staff across all sectors need to ensure that they design and deliver a coherent curriculum so that children and young people are able to build progressively on their prior learning.

Staff in primary and secondary schools continue to find Building the Curriculum 4 useful when developing approaches to skills based learning and Developing the young workforce (DYW). They are increasingly using the Career Standard 3-18 guidance to further support the development of skills across the curriculum.  

However, there remains scope for a stronger focus on skills development and progression to feature across the curriculum from 3-18 to ensure children and young people develop relevant skills for life, work and learning. Where this is working well, children and young can articulate the skills they are developing and how these are helping them now and in the future.

Evidence from a range of inspection activity highlights that staff across specialist additional support needs (ASN) settings, use Milestones: supporting learners with complex additional support needs alongside CfE guidance to inform curriculum design.

Much of the national advice, guidance and professional learning is designed for mainstream education. This means that staff in the special education sector often have to adapt guidance, advice and resources to best meet the needs of learners in these contexts. To better support staff in this sector there is a clear need for guidance that includes specific advice on developing a curriculum which meets the needs of children and young people with complex needs.

Sector-specific guidance

Early learning and childcare (ELC)

Staff in ELC settings use the Health and Social Care Standards and guidance from the Care Inspectorate, alongside CfE guidance, to inform their curriculum. The development of play pedagogy has had a significant impact on curriculum design in ELC settings and in the early years of primary schools.

Staff in ELC settings make use of Realising the Ambition and the Early Level Play Pedagogy Toolkit to support their work in developing a curriculum designed for younger children. Staff now need to consider better how learning across the early level curriculum is planned and developed to ensure that children benefit from progression in their learning.


As well as the national guidance referenced, staff in primary schools also continue to use Building the Curriculum 2: Active learning in the early years and Realising the Ambition to support the development of play across the early level.

A few primary schools are also beginning to incorporate play-based approaches in their curriculum for older children. There are positive examples of staff engaging with international research and professional learning opportunities which help them design a relevant curriculum.


Staff in secondary schools make good use of the arrangements documents from the national accreditation and awarding body for Scotland, and Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) to inform their senior phase curriculum.

Staff in the majority of the secondary schools we visited are beginning to engage with national reports, including Putting Learners and the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education and It’s Our Future: Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment, when reviewing their curriculums. For example, staff are increasing the range of learner pathways in the senior phase and opportunities for achievement beyond the classroom. This includes National Progression Awards, Foundation Apprenticeships and college courses. Young people's opportunities for accreditation for developing skills and attributes continues to increase.

Advice on national policy and legislation

Staff in the selection of schools and settings visited use national education policy well to support the design and delivery of the curriculum. Staff use guidance such as that set out for the Scottish Attainment Challenge and Getting it right for every child to support them to identify and respond to the needs of children, young people and their respective local communities.

The increased focus on children’s rights helps to ensure that children’s and young people’s needs are placed at the centre of curriculum decision-making. This will become even more important with the introduction of the United Nations Conventions of the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Act 2024. Although the National Improvement Framework remains the national plan for securing educational improvement, this is seen less often by staff as a key policy driver to support curriculum design.

The broad general education (BGE)

As part of their learner journey, all children and young people are entitled to experience a coherent curriculum which supports them to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to adapt and think critically in today’s world.

Staff in most of the schools and settings we visited are taking steps to ensure that children and young people receive a broad range of curricular experiences. However, HM Inspectors know from wider inspection evidence that too many children and young people do not currently experience the full range of experiences and outcomes they are entitled to in their broad general education (BGE).

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that most of primary schools visited have focused on literacy, numeracy and wellbeing, to respond to gaps in children’s learning. Now, staff in primary schools are shifting their focus to ensure children are learning across the breadth of curricular areas and subjects. Nevertheless, there is a pressing need to accelerate this.

Despite staff efforts, young people in secondary schools can still experience constraints on how fully they can access specific subjects and pathways. Recruitment challenges in secondary schools can impact how the curriculum is planned and delivered and can result in some young people not receiving their full entitlement to a BGE.

In addition, in one-teacher departments, that teacher’s departure can result in difficulties for continuity in the subject in both the BGE and senior phase. Recruiting qualified staff is particularly challenging in business, drama, Gaelic language, home economics, mathematics and the technologies.

An increase in the use of online learning, for example through the national e-learning offer and e-Sgoil, is supporting staff to address this challenge for their learners. This is helping to ensure that young people can access curriculum areas and continue their learning.

Senior leaders and staff must improve young people’s experiences of the BGE in S3. In efforts to avoid the ‘two term dash’ for National Qualifications, young people in S3 are often given learning which is overly-focussed on national qualifications. They are often required to specialise in specific curriculum areas too early which can result in a narrowing of the curriculum they experience.

Making course choices too early may lead young people to discontinue a subject area prematurely Senior phase examinations continue to overly influence the BGE curriculum. There remains a pressing need for work to take place to better align the BGE and the senior phase to ensure smoother progression for young people. 

The senior phase

Senior leaders and staff do not always ensure that young people in the senior phase receive their full entitlement to curriculum choice. Senior leaders frequently find that balancing timetables and matching staff availability with pupil choice present challenges.

Curriculums meet young people’s needs when staff have sought young people’s views about their subject choices. For example, carrying out provisional choice exercises provides staff with valuable information around the breadth and capacity needed in subjects and courses. This allows them to plan more effectively to ensure that curriculum options better meet the interests and choices of young people.

Young people in S5 and S6 continue to have opportunities to apply their learning in a range of situations. School staff and partners are working together effectively to provide extended work experience and improved college links. There is scope for staff to explore what would be a meaningful, motivational curriculum for those in S6 who have unconditional offers for higher education or who are likely to leave school at short notice.

Although most young people follow courses leading to National Qualifications, the senior phase curriculum is increasingly providing courses leading to, for example, Foundation Apprenticeships and Awards. Staff in secondary schools are taking steps to raise awareness among parents and employers about the benefits to young people of all available options. They are introducing positive approaches to equip and encourage young people to broaden their curriculum options and increase the uptake of these programmes. For example, young people are acting as ambassadors for the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) where the profile of a wider range of qualifications beyond senior phase examinations are highlighted.