‘Inequity for students’ as secondary subject options narrow

Fewer subjects studied at some Scottish schools means some pupils are losing out, says study

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New analysis of schools’ curricular offerings has found that, as pupils enter the crucial senior years of secondary, the range of courses they can take is shrinking.

The study by the University of Dundee’s Professor Jim Scott, shared exclusively with Tes Scotland, has raised concerns that some pupils see their educational prospects suffer.

His analysis shows that more than half of secondary schools he examined built their S4 timetables around six subjects – 54 per cent, up from 45 per cent in 2016-17 – and that the number of schools offering seven or eight subjects has reduced.

The range of approaches at S4 follows on from myriad curricular structures Scott identified at S1-3 – a different structure for every 1.4 secondaries – and he suggests any gaps in the system are less likely to be overcome by “‘average’ and ‘less-able’ learners”.

A minority of schools has established curricular structures that Scott says would be “inadvisable in any circumstances”, either because they are too narrow – 9 or 10 courses at S1-3, leaving minimal space for areas such as creative subjects, languages and interdisciplinary learning – or too broad, with 19-24 subjects leading to “poor learning”.

“To then crash back to six subjects in S4 means that you have frittered away a lot of curricular time on a very shallow approach to a very broad range of learning experiences – and may thus have failed to ensure smooth progression with adequate time for learning in depth in the six-to-seven subjects you’re taking forward,” said Scott.

Scott said that Education Scotland reports do not indicate that attainment is worse in schools that offer seven or eight subjects at S4, which suggests “an issue of inequity” in what is offered to pupils around Scotland.

Support for students

Scott, a former secondary head, also fears schools are not receiving enough support nationally or locally in developing curricular structures.

“Why, therefore, have some mandated their schools to adopt a certain number of courses in given years of the curriculum? On what is this based?” said Scott.

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary heads, said that if the research indicates a “narrowing of the curriculum, that would be worrying”. As well as leaving pupils with fewer options – and certain groups “disadvantaged” as a result – he fears there could be knock-on effects on staffing levels in certain subjects. Thewliss says the time is right to review how the BGE “articulates” into the senior phase.

Michael Wood, general secretary of education directors’ body ADES, said he believes that a six-course structure is “most effective”, as seven or eight choices “gives less time for individual subject areas”.

Wood is “quite convinced” that schools receive enough support, certainly locally, in building curricular structures. He added that schools’ approaches to qualifications are not as uniform or linear as in the past – some pupils may skip lower-level courses to progress quicker to Higher, for example – so looking at S4 curricular structures in isolation may not provide the full picture.

Less flexibility

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that fewer choices at S4 are likely to be indicative of a more general tendency towards less flexibility in the senior phasem, with subjects such as art and music are likely to suffer from reduced subject choices.

A Scottish government spokesman said: “Choices regarding the curriculum design are taken at a local level to ensure that they can be tailored to specific needs, but every child in Scotland should have access to a broad range of subject choices, including college and work-based learning options.”

He added: “Education Scotland provides comprehensive guidance to schools on curriculum development.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 16 March edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes Scotland magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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