Subject choice squeeze 'hits most families'

Limits on the subjects that pupils can study leading to 'disappointment' and 'demotivation', say Scottish parents

Emma Seith

Subject choice squeeze is affecting most families, survey shows

More than three-quarters of parents believe their child has not been able to pursue all the subjects they want to at school, with the impact on some pupils being a lack of motivation or an unwillingness to attend, according to a new survey.

The poll – conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee as part of its inquiry into the narrowing of subject choices in secondary – suggests that the most common reason for pupils being unable to pursue all the subjects they wanted to was “a column clash”. In other words, the way courses were timetabled did not allow the pupil to pursue a particular subject.

The second most common reason for a child not being able to pursue a subject – according to the responses from the 375 parents who took part in the online survey – was the teacher shortage and the third was that the total number of subjects the child could pursue was limited.

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“The majority of these instances referred to children being limited to studying six subjects at S4/N5,” said the report.

'Narrowing' curriculum

It added: “Staff shortages were described not only in terms of there not being enough teachers overall, but reference was also made to there not being enough qualified teachers; teachers having left but the vacancy had not been filled, and there not being enough teachers of a particular subject.”

Parents reported that the impact of pupils not being able to pursue their chosen subjects was them having to take classes that were “not as relevant” or they were “not as interested in” and that for some this led to “a subsequent lack motivation, or unwillingness attend school”.

Other commonly cited impacts were that the pupil would have to “crash a subject”; it affected their Highers because they were only allowed to pursue in S5 subjects they had taken in S4; and a sense that options had been narrowed to early.

The words used most frequently by parents to describe their child’s emotions were disillusioned, disappointed, demotivated and stressed.

The subjects that parents most frequently cited as being unavailable were music, Spanish, computer science and German; the most frequently mentioned qualification level that was unavailable was National 5.

The online survey ran for four weeks from February to March and asked parents, “Has your child/have your children been able to take all the subjects they wanted to at school?” A total of 76 per cent of the 375 respondents said no.

Last week, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was grilled by opposition MSPs over the apparent narrowing of subject choices in upper secondary.

However, she hit back, saying it was the qualifications that pupils had by the time they left school that mattered “not just the subjects that they study at S4”.

The attack was prompted by a report from the Reform Scotland thinktank and evidence to the education committee.

Last week the MSPs on the committee heard from the University of Dundee’s Professor Jim Scott that, as a result of the narrowing of the curriculum in S4, a wide range of subjects were struggling: modern languages, ICT, arts, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects.

Professor Scott, a former secondary headteacher, said that roughly half of Scotland’s schools were now offering six subjects in S4 and that the narrowing of the curriculum had spread through parts of Scotland like a “virus”.

“We are in danger of a generation going past who have not had a good experience in education,” he warned.

He also said that in a bid to deliver a wider range of subjects, “tri-level teaching” – where one teacher has pupils pursing three levels of qualification in the same class – was “prevalent” in parts of Scotland, especially in “minority subjects” and smaller schools.


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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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