John Swinney accused of behaving like an ‘old hippie’

Education secretary is accused of effectively saying, ‘Hey man, let the children study whatever they like’ to senior pupils

Emma Seith

Swinney accused of behaving like ‘old hippy’

Scottish Labour’s education spokesman has accused the education secretary of behaving like an “old hippie” over his attitude to subject choice in secondary schools.

Education secretary John Swinney repeatedly told the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee his morning that he did not believe in dictating what pupils should study in the senior phase of secondary beyond the “three preeminent aspects of the curriculum”: literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing.

He pointed out that pupils were exposed to the full range of subjects – including languages and Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects – during the broad general education which ran until the end of S3. Mr Swinney said that if, following this exposure to these subjects and this encouragement to pursue them, pupils opted not to, he believed they should not be forced.

Short read: Steep year-on-year drop in languages entries

Background: Subject uptake reduces across ‘entire senior phase’

Related: Why the subject choices debate is more nuanced than it seems

“Pupils must be motivated by their curriculum choices,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said that the issue of the extent to which the system should prescribe the subjects pursued by senior pupils could be looked at by the senior phase review.

However, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray, who sits on the education committee, said that certain subjects were being squeezed out, not because pupils no longer wanted to pursue them, but because the introduction of the new qualifications had let to pupils being able to pursue fewer courses.

Conservative MSP Alison Harris, meanwhile, pointed out that if the decline in uptake of modern languages continued at the same pace over the next six years they would likely become “virtually extinct” at Higher, like classical languages Latin and Greek.

Speaking to Tes Scotland after the meeting, Mr Gray said: "In his efforts to dismiss evidence of subjects like languages and science being squeezed out of the curriculum as the concerns of 'old duffers', John Swinney is starting to sound less 'old duffer' and more 'old hippy', telling us, 'Hey man, let the children study whatever they like'.

“Pupil choice has always been important to our school system, but so has ensuring a broad and balanced curriculum and giving pupils the skills they need for the modern jobs market. There is little point in government claiming to be promoting languages or Stem subjects on the one hand, and saying we should let them die from the curriculum on the other.”

Mr Swinney was reported saying at a fringe event at the SNP conference in October that it would be "daft" to force pupils into subjects they did not like and that the curriculum should be driven by what pupils were interested in, rather than by what "old duffers" like him were interested in.

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for TES Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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