Scotland's education secretary has said that smaller rolls of schools in deprived areas explain why they run more "multi-course classes" – as well as the desire of headteachers to make sure pupils are offered as wide a range of courses as possible.
John Swinney was forced once again to defend the rise in what has also been dubbed "multi-level teaching" today during portfolio questions at the Scottish Parliament.
This is the practice of pupils studying a subject at different levels – such as National 4, National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher – who end up being taught in the same class by the same teacher.
Earlier this year it was revealed that in one school four maths qualifications – from National 4 to Advanced Higher – were being delivered in the same class.
Unions say the practice is bad for teachers because it increases workload and bad for pupils because they do not get the support they need. A survey by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) recently revealed it was more likely to be the “poor relation” secondary subjects such as art and drama that were delivered in this way.
However, this afternoon Mr Swinney – who recently announced an independent review of the "senior phase" of secondary school – said in the Scottish Parliament that there were a variety of factors that could lead to multi-level teaching. He responded after Labour education spokesman Iain Gray highlighted research suggesting pupils in deprived areas are more likely to be taught in multi-level classes.
The research – published by investigative news platform The Ferret – found that two of the most affluent, high-performing education authorities, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire, made little use of the multi-level teaching.
Mr Swinney said: “There will be a variety of factors that lead to the existence of multi-level teaching. Some of that will be around the number of pupils who have a desire to take particular courses and the desire of schools to make sure provision is as wide and broad as possible.
“Mr Gray will realise that in some of the schools that operate in deprived areas the cohort size may be comparatively smaller than in other parts of the country. Pupil numbers in general will also be smaller than in other secondary schools and these factors will obviously have an effect on the provision of particular courses."
Mr Swinney added: “But what I don’t think schools and headteachers should be criticised for is trying to maximise the opportunities available for young people, which is what they are doing, and that may contribute to multi-level teaching which Mr Gray knows has long been a feature of Scottish education.”
Mr Gray’s questions followed on from the Conservative MSP Jeremy Balfour, who pointed out that, in a recent survey of headteachers on implementing the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence, 75 per cent had said availability of teaching staff had limited their ability to ensure a broad general education.