'Narrowing' of curriculum limiting pupil choice, politicians told

​​​​​​​Pupils in Scotland have a narrower set of options than in the past, MSPs told

Henry Hepburn

‘Pupils' subject choices are undoubtedly narrowing’

Teachers, parents and expert organisations have raised concerns with MSPs about the narrowing of subject choices in Scottish schools.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) said there had undoubtedly been a narrowing of the curriculum across Scottish secondary schools, with fewer subjects being taken in the fourth year of secondary school compared to the Standard Grade system that preceded Curriculum for Excellence.

The RSE, in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into subject choices, stated: “Recent research indicates that the majority of Scottish secondary schools now offer six qualification courses at S4.

“The widespread reduction in the number of subjects studied in S4 is not the result of any conscious policy decision but is the unintended consequence of the interpretation of national guidance, with the [Scottish Qualifications Authority] national qualification courses based on 160 hours of directed study.”

Long read: Is Scotland’s curriculum really narrowing?

News editor’s take: Will Curriculum for Excellence stage a comeback?

One head’s view: ‘Scottish education system needs a fundamental reboot’ 

In other evidence submitted to the subject-choices inquiry, by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, the NASUWT teaching union said its own survey of members suggested that most schools had cut subject choices in the fourth year of secondary school from eight to either six (57 per cent) or seven (30 per cent)

General secretary Chris Keates said: "The NASUWT agrees that the current model is restricting pupil choice and progression beyond core subjects and undermining the viability of other subjects.

"Feedback from members shows that in some schools many of the most-able pupils are choosing to leave, because there are not enough of their chosen Advanced Higher courses running."

Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, said: “It is clear children in most state schools are given as few as five and up to seven subject choices. Every independent school offers eight.”

A spokesman for the EIS teaching union said the “compression” of qualifications in S4 had “required” a reduction in the number of subjects chosen.

The Scottish Association of Geography Teachers said: “We are very concerned that the widespread narrowing of the curriculum has reduced choice for individual pupils thus limiting their career opportunities too soon and restricting the opportunity to change career pathways further into the senior school.

“Because the system is now so fragmented countrywide, pupils no longer have equal opportunities.”

The association added: “Regarding the overarching aims of providing more breadth and depth for the development our young workforce, we appear to be doing just the opposite.

“Far from closing the attainment gap and raising standards, it appears to make our young people less competitive with serious consequences for the future workforce in Scotland.”

Iain Aitken, a principal teacher of geography, said: "The system is fundamentally broken.

"There is an urgent need to revert to a system where pupils can follow at least eight subjects in S4.”

Jim Sutherland, recently retired headteacher of Lochaber High School in Fort William, said: "Many young people are forced to concentrate on the subjects they will require to progress to the next stage of their education."

This meant many were no longer taking subjects such as art, music, drama and languages.

Mr Sutherland added: "I believe that the narrowing of the curriculum in S4 has contributed to widening – not closing – the attainment gap."

Parents Mark and Sally Gunn, from the Highlands, said the current situation had "seriously damaged the progression of the most academically able".

They said: "The enforced reduction to just six subjects at S4, down from eight (even nine for those able to take on extras like music in their own time) has been a catastrophe."

The Education and Skills Committee will take evidence on subject choices when it meets on Wednesday morning.

A Scottish government spokesman said the system was "flexible" and "personalised" and focuses on a pupil's achievement at the end of the senior phase and "not just within a single year".

He added: "Studying for fewer qualifications means more time for learning and teaching in the subjects that are being studied.

"It also means more time for studying for awards other than 'traditional' national qualifications, and young people are now gaining a broader range of qualifications."

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

Latest stories