Curriculum: ‘Get over this fixation on subjects and exams'

​​​​​​Debate over the number of subjects studied in Scotland's schools ignores how the curriculum works, says Isabelle Boyd

​​​​​​​Let’s ‘get over the preoccupation’ with exams and the number of subjects studied

I was really disappointed at the coverage and the outrage from, among others, the thinktank Reform Scotland last week about the senior phase of school education in Scotland. The coverage of the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee inquiry into subject choices could be paraphrased as “the reduction of numbers of subjects that can be taken in S4 is an unintended consequence of the delivery of the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)”.

I quite simply suggest this: naw, it’s no.

CfE has two key phases – a “broad general education” up to S3 and a senior phase from S4-6 – designed as a three-year experience, rather than planning each year separately.

We also saw headlines such as “First minister accused of ‘ignoring’ teachers on subject choice”. How disingenuous. When looking at submissions to the inquiry, there are hardly any from teachers. However, the submission from the EIS union makes the case that this narrow focus on “subjects” could indeed be a real barrier to a full understanding of the senior phase of the curriculum.


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In the senior phase, schools are working with each other and partners (for example, colleges and employers) to ensure flexibility in offering a range of pathways to better meet the needs and raise the attainment levels of all learners. Many local authorities, such as West Lothian and North Lanarkshire, have streamlined senior phase across their schools to allow for travel and, therefore, a wider range of pathways for young people. This work has been rightly praised but largely forgotten about in this latest brouhaha.

Subject choice and the curriculum

Schools should be congratulated for their ambitions and in making the best use of resources to provide an appropriate curriculum for everyone. This is not simply about the number of subjects on offer but about how they are configured to provide pathways and progressions in learning. It would serve us all better if we devoted energy in promoting a better understanding of the senior-phase curriculum as the totality of learner experiences, and not just the subjects studied.

I am also not buying the argument that we need to revert to the old ways because of university entrance requirements. I do not believe that to be the case, but if I am wrong, then maybe it’s time we called the tune with the universities to ensure that they are aligned to the system and not dictating it.

There were stories that suggested that young people were being disadvantaged because they couldn’t study the subjects of their choice – nothing new there!

This debate has also chosen to ignore three important features: firstly, the notional length of time for a candidate to complete national courses is 160 hours. It is almost impossible to adhere to the principles of CfE and offer more than seven courses in S4 of the senior phase.

Secondly, in the past, when pupils studied eight subjects, it was often the case that many youngsters took subjects as fillers for their timetable, which led to a lot of wasted time. It could be argued that this led to lower achievement, and less time available for the key subjects they wished to take forward.

Thirdly, in recent times there has been a real concern about over-assessment of candidates in the senior phase – particularly at S4. Following representation from teacher and parent organisations about unnecessary pressure on young people, changes were made to course requirements – so why are we hankering after a return to greater pressure on young people and a return to over-assessment?

I agree with the Scottish government and the EIS that we have to see the success of senior phase at point of exit for young people – almost two-thirds of our pupils now stay in school until end of S6.

There is evidence of success: since 2009, the proportion of young people leaving school with five Highers has increased from 22.9 per cent to 30 per cent, with a continuing reduction in the gap between the most and least deprived young people in Higher passes. Last year saw 94.4 per cent of school leavers in work, training or further study within three months of leaving school – the highest rate since 2009 – with the gap in positive destinations by the most and least deprived young people halved.

Until we get over the preoccupation with a number of subjects and end-of-year exam results as the only determinants of success, we won’t realise the full potential of the CfE principles or realise the full potential of our young people.

Isabelle Boyd is an educational consultant. She previously worked as a local authority assistant chief executive and as a secondary school headteacher

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