MSPs have hit out at the Scottish government for failing to investigate how widespread the teaching of multiple qualifications in the same class is, despite the issue being raised with it three years ago.
Minutes from a meeting in 2016 involving the Scottish government, inspection body Education Scotland and the Learned Societies' Group – established by the Royal Society of Edinburgh due to concerns over the delivery of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools – show that the government was presented with the results of a survey that laid bare teachers’ concerns about multi-level teaching.
The survey of over 250 chemistry teachers found they were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the practice – which the unions say has exploded in Scottish schools in recent years – as being bad for pupils.
John Swinney: No proof of ‘explosion’ in multi-level classes
However, no further information was gathered by the government, which, according to the MSPs who sit on the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee, has resulted in the “frustrating” lack of figures today.
The committee has called for the situation to be “immediately rectified” and for the data to be gathered.
The risks of multi-level teaching
The recommendation is contained in the recently published Subject choices in Scottish secondaries report which looks at whether or not the curriculum that Scottish pupils study in the senior phase of secondary has narrowed since the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence and the new qualifications.
Already the report has led to the Scottish government committing to an independent review of the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence.
The report looks specifically at the issue of multi-level teaching, as well as the impact of other issues on subject choice, including the teacher shortage and the variation in the number of subjects pupils are able to pursue in S4.
The EIS teaching union told the committee there had been an “explosion” in multi-level teaching, with evidence to the committee indicating that up to four qualifications – from National 4 to Advanced Higher – are being delivered in some schools in one classroom by one teacher.
The committee heard there were “very few pedagogical advantages to multi-level qualification teaching” and that it was done as “a pragmatic response to the limited resources that schools have to run the courses”, but it had a negative impact on teacher workload and pupils' experience.
According to EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan, having to deliver multiple qualifications within a single class was “one of the biggest complaints... from members about the senior phase”.
However, when the education secretary, John Swinney, gave evidence to the education committee he said he did not know if there had been an explosion because he did not have the evidence.
Mr Swinney said: “I am interested in looking further into that question. I have not seen any data that would allow me to make a judgment on whether there has been an 'explosion', and I do not think that that data exists.”
But the education committee members said that the government should have been collecting the data because as far back as 2016 it was being warned that multi-level teaching was an issue.
According to the MSPs in April 2016, Scottish government officials, Education Scotland officials and representatives of the Learned Societies' Group held a meeting and discussed a survey of 259 teachers undertaken by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The survey asked how well Higher students’ learning could be supported in combined National 5 and Higher classes, and 99.5 per cent of teachers responded “not at all” or “not very” well.
The education committee report stated: “This could have generated work from the Scottish government or Education Scotland in 2016. It is therefore frustrating that a lack of data on this issue is cited by Education Scotland and the cabinet secretary in 2019 and the committee recommends that this is immediately rectified by the Scottish government and Education Scotland.”
The committee added that once the data was gathered, it should be analysed to see if certain subjects were disproportionately affected and if there was a disproportionate impact on smaller schools.
The committee also said that Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority should work together to identify which subjects could be compatible with multi-level teaching, “taking into account the content of the curriculum and progression between different qualification levels”.
In his evidence to the education committee in May, Glasgow City Council’s head of education, Gerry Lyons, said some courses lent themselves to multi-level teaching more than others.
Mr Flanagan, meanwhile, said in his evidence that in “content-heavy subjects” there was not “the skills crossover that you might have in languages, or even in English”.
Marjorie Kerr, from the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers, said National 5 pupils were “definitely disadvantaged” if they ended up in a class with Higher pupils “because the courses do not match up”.
The report concluded: “Of the related issues to emerge during the inquiry, the perceived extensive increase in the use of multi-level teaching as a response to resources and curricular change was the most concerning. The clear message sent to the committee by teachers of various subjects was that teaching a mix of National 4, National 5, Higher and/or Advanced Higher candidates within the same class was challenging and would inevitably result in some pupils not receiving adequate preparation for examinations.”
A Scottish government spokesman said multi-level teaching had long been a part of Scottish education and there would be varying levels of prior attainment in any class.
He added: "During inspections, Education Scotland inspectors will evaluate the extent to which children and young people are being suitably supported and challenged in their learning.
“The most important thing is the outcome for the young person – and last year a record proportion of pupils went on to positive destinations such as work, training or further study.
“We will of course carefully consider all the points raised in the committee report, and have announced an independent review of the senior phase.”