Narrowing choice has 'profound implications' for pupils

To fix the problem of subject choice in Scotland, we must first clearly define what the problem is, says Barry Black
18th November 2019, 10:55am


Narrowing choice has 'profound implications' for pupils
Narrowing Choice Has 'profound Implications' For Pupils

Whether it be in schools, colleges or universities, students will have it instilled that in order to answer a question, the concepts under analysis need to first be defined. This is a core principle in teaching, but one that is often missing in debates regarding education.

Subject choice has been at the forefront of our national discourse for some time now.

The increasing frustration that there has been a narrowing of the senior-phase curriculum under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has seen countless exchanges in Holyrood. Most notably, a Scottish Parliament committee inquiry on the issue has reported with a range of recommendations of how the system can progress.

First Minister's Questions: Sturgeon grilled over pupils' subject choices

Background: Claims about improving attainment 'not fully accurate'

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Long read: How one school drove up attainment of disadvantaged pupils with courses in everything from beekeeping to construction

Despite the importance and scrutiny of the issue, however, there is still no settled consensus that there is indeed a problem. This is in part due to conflation of what is meant by "subject choice". Simultaneous claims that subject choice is both narrowing and widening can be evidenced.

The prominence of this issue is due to the increasing volume of evidence that pupils today have fewer opportunities to sit as many qualifications as pupils could under the standard grade system.

Marina Shapira and Mark Priestley assessed a reduction in National 5 equivalent entries from 7.3 in 2011 to 5.13 in 2017. Their work (see references below) has identified various reasons why, such as new curricular structure and resources; it is becoming irrefutable that pupils who go to more deprived schools have less choice in the number of qualifications they can sit.

It is also true that there has been a widening in the number of subjects available in Scottish education. While this is harder to assess school by school, there are now more actual subjects within the qualification framework. This is not least because of programmes such as Developing the Young Workforce, which has led to an expansion in vocational options.

So, to be clear, pupils now can, on average, take fewer subjects in their senior years than they could in 2012. But there is likely more choice in what these subjects may be. Indeed, this is acknowledged in point 117 and 118 of the Education and Skills Committee's report.

The conflation of talking about the latter, when the real issue is the former, has been present throughout this saga. It could be heard at First Minister's Questions recently when Professor Scott's new report was raised. It was also used by local authorities to defend their curricular offer during the parliamentary inquiry.

The issue is that by not accepting that there is a narrowing of the number of subjects young people can take, the longer young people will have to wait for solutions.

Conflating the two definitions may see those responsible for our schools get through a debate or an evidence session, but a narrowing of the number of subject choices has profound implications for pupils' progression through education and their future choices. Such easy get-outs badly let them down.

The current review of the senior phase must recognise this issue. Only by defining the problem for what it is can it be conquered. A failure to do so does not assist the debate around our education system, far less the young people that it serves.

Barry Black is a postgraduate education researcher at the University of Glasgow


  1. Priestley, M and Shapira, M  (2019) "Do schools matter? An exploration of the determinants of lower secondary school subject choices under the Curriculum for Excellence", Review of Education
  2. Priestley, M and Shapira, M  (2017) "Narrowing the curriculum? Contemporary trends in provision and attainment in the Scottish curriculum", European Educational Research Association - ECER 2017
  3. Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee, Agenda, 13th meeting, 24 April 2019
  4. Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee, Subject Choices 2019 inquiry report
  5. Scottish Parliament, chamber official report, 7 November 2019 
  6. Scott, J (2019) Widening the gap: Curriculum for Excellence and attainment patterns in national examinations in Scottish schools
  7. Scottish Parliament, Education and Skills Committee Official Report, 15 November 2019

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