Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future & Outdoor Education

On 21st June 2021 a report on Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was published by OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). We review some of the findings and ask what this means for environmental education in Scotland's future.


The report (which you can read here) gathers good data for the CfE and how Scotland measures against its own policy goals, and against other countries, and highlights that:


  • Scotland has reduced attainment differences between its young people from the most and least deprived areas

  • Scotland has increased equity between students

  • Scotland has higher reading, mathematics, and science ratings than the OECD average* – in fact, reading levels have continued to increase in Scotland despite the averages of all three scores lowering.

  • Scotland is also scored as the 4th top performing country in regards to global competence – and although the report didn’t specify what this means, we found it defined as:

The PISA 2018 Global Competence assessment measures students’ capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.

The 3 countries ahead of Scotland were Singapore, Canada, and Hong Kong (China), and had mean performance scores more than 50 points above the overall average (of 474 points).


*The 'OECD average' mentioned here and several further times refers to the average within the OECD data set of 38 member countries, including Germany, the US, Korea, and most recently Costa Rica. View the full list here.


Returning to the report, it did not only have good things to say:

  • Scotland is among the countries with the largest differences between students and their performance which, interestingly, had little to do with socio-economic differences (the difference between students was mostly within rather than between schools).

  • Criticisms of CfE from teachers and other stakeholders stated that stakeholder ownership felt fragmented and that the multiple 'add-on' policies released by the Scottish Government was overwhelming.

  • Teachers reported that the level of work was challenging due to the expectation of teachers and schools themselves to design the curriculum (In lower secondary schools, teachers spent 63% of their time teaching - very high compared with the 43% average across OECDs).

  • Students reported more bullying and slightly lower life satisfaction than the OECD average.

Looking at the report with the eye of an environmental educator was positive, however. The Scottish Government maintains that improving children and young people’s health and wellbeing is a key priority – and while drawing on the research proving that outdoor education and play opportunities improves this, that is a whole other blog post, but it is an accepted statement amongst practitioners, researchers, and policy makers alike. Given that Scottish young people report a slightly lower life satisfaction (and more prevalent fear of failure) than the average across OECDs, this priority is more important than ever.


The report restates the global significance of the CfE and its four capabilities:

  • Successful learners

  • Confident learners

  • Effective contributors

  • Responsible citizens

Which underpins its three interdisciplinary areas (literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing) and further divided 8 curriculum areas (expressive arts, languages, religious and moral education, social studies, maths, sciences, technologies, health and wellbeing).


As many environmental educators know, outdoor lessons and activities can easily tick several of these boxes at once, including the broader aims within the CfE such as “applying learning in new situations” or “communicate in different ways and different settings”. The case for outdoor learning, therefore, is easily made.


This report hasn’t changed that fact – but it has highlighted opportunities that we believe outdoor learning practitioners can answer:

  • the usefulness of high quality, exemplary educational materials which answer (and show how they answer) cross-curricular aims and objectives, which can be integrated into teacher's practice and support professional learning.

  • the adaptation of the Senior Phase into the CfE ethos, whose students report far fewer opportunities to experience more engaging and intrinsically motivating activities (due to high emphasis on examinations). Since the Scottish Government wishes to further adapt the Senior Phase (Upper Secondary in particular) into the CfE ethos, a review or even change of examination approach is on the horizon – which could mean more opportunities for outdoor educators to reach these students.


The Scottish Government does recognise play and outdoor learning as a hugely important (and research supported) part in a young person’s growth and experience. Unfortunately, this does not typically translate to schools beyond the use of external practitioners and field trips, and very rarely beyond primary schools. Embedding outdoor learning in the curriculum is increasing, but the extent to which it will be increased to still remains unknown.


At the very least this report can be used by outdoor practitioners in support of their work, because the CfE is so flexible and outdoor learning can achieve many of its aims, and this report supports CfE – particularly what holistic outdoor education helps to achieve: cultivating the next generations to become active and responsible shapers of a global world.


If you'd like to view the report yourself, you can do so online & for free here.


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