'The poorer you are, the fewer subject choices you get'

Shrinking choices are having a serious impact on students – it's time for the denial to stop, argues Barry Black

subject choices in Scotland: why less definitely isn't more for poorer pupils

As readers will be all too aware, subject choice in schools is a major issue in Scottish education. Earlier this month, investigative journalism website The Ferret published findings of my research, which adds further weight to the growing evidence that those who are worse off in Scotland have a more constrained choice of subjects.

The research, whose full findings can be seen in the article, compares the average number of Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) entries per pupil at a school with the proportion of pupils on free school meals. The data demonstrates what has been a growing concern for some time: pupils in schools with higher rates of deprivation have fewer numbers of subjects available and a lower rate of attainment.  

My research shows that schools with more than 40 per cent of pupils on free school meals offer nearly 10 per cent fewer subjects across the senior phase than schools where the figure is between 0 and 10 per cent. The national average for subject entries across S4 to S6 is 13.97. In the most affluent schools, the number is 14.25, and in the most deprived it is only 12.94.


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While the data highlights a large disparity in S4, the most significant difference exists in S5, where there is a gap of nearly an entire subject: 4.27 compared with 3.42.

Not only do pupils in more affluent schools have a larger number of subject options but they are also more likely to pass them.

Just over half of pupils from the poorest schools achieve one Higher or equivalent by the time they leave school – a huge difference to the nearly three-quarters of pupils in the most affluent schools.

Crucially, while 14 per cent of Scotland’s pupils are on free school meals, there are 77 schools where this figure is more than 20 per cent. In numbers of senior phase subject choices, and National 5 and Higher attainment, these schools are well behind the national average.

This is the latest in an increasing body of research, which includes a Scottish Parliament report, showing one of two things. First, there has been a narrowing of the number of subject choices available in schools since the implementation of the new curriculum. Second, this narrowing is having a bigger impact in more deprived schools. 

It is clear that policy solutions are needed to tackle these issues. Before these can be properly explored, however, there needs to be an acceptance from policymakers that there is a problem. Far too often, those responsible for our education system rebut the evidence by conflating what is meant by "subject choice", or by simply denying that this is their experience.

There has to be more serious engagement with the research and an appreciation of the serious impact these issues can have on young people. The current review of the senior phase is the perfect opportunity to decide how some of these unintended consequences can be overcome.

We know subject choices have a profound impact on young people and their future options. This research adds to the evidence that, in Scotland, pupils in schools in the poorest areas have fewer choices – a situation that must be rectified.

Barry Black is a postgraduate education researcher at the University of Glasgow. He tweets @BarryBlackNE

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