Local authority education bosses have hit back at suggestions that pupils in secondary schools are seeing their options narrow.
In recent months there has been a high-profile debate about the number of subjects pupils are able to study in S4, but MSPs were told today that it can be misleading to look at this issue in isolation.
Mark Ratter, who heads up quality improvement and performance at East Renfrewshire Council’s education services, said that, thanks to partnerships with colleges, universities and employers, as well as the Developing the Young Workforce national policy, there was actually now “a far greater choice” in what pupils could study. In one East Renfrewshire secondary school, for example, S5-6 pupils “have a choice of over 130 different courses”.
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Dr Ratter, who was today addressing the latest sessions of an inquiry into subject choices carried out by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, said: “It is very much about making sure that we’ve got a senior phase that meets the needs of all our learners.”
Angus Council schools and learning director Pauline Stephen said there was “an ongoing challenge” to communicate to pupils’ families the “shifting and different” education system that pupils experience in 2019.
Dr Stephen cited new types of qualifications such as Foundation Apprenticeships, which were little known outside education circles and sometimes wrongly viewed as inferior to other qualifications.
Glasgow City Council head of education Gerry Lyons, who was representing education directors’ body ADES, said parents sometimes associated these apprenticeships – which provide pupils with work-based learning – with the Foundation level at Standard Grade, the most basic pass in that now-defunct qualification.
Dr Stephen said that Brechin High, for example, had worked with a local roofing business to open a construction centre at the school, which “allows us to offer qualifications alongside an employer in partnership – it’s been really successful”.
Tony McDaid, South Lanarkshire Council’s executive director of education resources, said you could understand parents comparing how many subjects different schools were offering at S4 and their “natural anxiety” around that. However, they reacted well when they heard that “this is not just about your fourth year, you can do another subject when you move into fifth year”, and that there was a focus on the career a pupil was ultimately heading towards and the qualifications they would gain “across the whole senior phase” from S4-6.
Mr McDaid also said that young people who might have struggled at school in the past were doing better thanks to the more flexible approaches to learning and qualifications, which was reflected in more leavers reaching “positive destinations”.
“Of course, we need to look at improving, but we also need to look at the things that are going well,” he added.
Aberdeenshire Council head of education Vincent Docherty said that, in his area, while S4 uptake was going down in some subjects identified as concerns, such as French and art and design, other figures suggested that the number of students in these areas was rising in the later years of S5-6.
He said at the committee meeting today that “we don’t see any downturn in the subjects you’re mentioning”.
In National 5 French, for example, the number of Aberdeenshire entries fell between 2014 and 2018. However, the Higher figure rose in the same period from 189 to 248; in art and design, the figure rose from 212 to 239.
This, Mr Docherty said, showed that “although there is the issue that…youngsters may be discouraged from taking those subjects at the initial part of the senior phase, when it is embraced in its totality, then it would appear that youngsters are not being disadvantaged”.
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray, remained sceptical about the explanations for narrowing subject choices at S4, however. He questioned the rationale for pupils in some local authorities being able to take eight subjects in S4 as standard, whereas in other areas six was the upper limit.