The Scottish education secretary has dismissed claims by the country's largest teaching union that there has been an “explosion” in multi-level teaching in Scottish schools.
Even if pupils studying for different qualifications were being taught in the same classes, there was nothing to say it was “inherently damaging”, John Swinney said today as he gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee.
Multi-level teaching had existed in Scottish education “for a long, long time – maybe all time”, he added, so if there was an educational disadvantage associated with it, it was a longstanding one.
Background: Subject choice in schools to be reviewed by MSPs
News editor’s take: Why the subject choices debate is more nuanced than it seems
Mr Swinney made his comments this morning as the committee continued its inquiry into the apparent narrowing of subject choices in Scottish schools.
A rise in multi-level classes?
Giving evidence to the committee earlier this month, Larry Flanagan, the EIS union's general secretary, told MSPs that one of the biggest complaints from Scottish teachers was “the explosion in multi-level classes” whereby different courses, from National 4 to Advanced Higher, are taught in the same classroom by the same teacher.
He said that the growth in multi-level classes was “simply a pragmatic response to the limited resources that schools have to run the courses”.
Today, however, Mr Swinney said that he had “not seen any data that would allow me to make a judgement about whether there has been an explosion or not, and I don’t think that data exists”.
Mr Swinney – who had been asked by Labour MSP Johann Lamont to research whether there were issues in particular subject areas – added: “In principle, I’ve not seen any educational argument that there is something inherently damaging about multi-level teaching. Because multi-level teaching has been part of the Scottish education system for a long, long time – maybe all time.”
Ms Lamont responded that it was happening routinely, adding: “It might be a timetabling convenience but it’s an educational challenge, and teachers have told us that.”
Ms Lamont asked if Mr Swinney thought it was acceptable for someone to try and teach physics at Advanced Higher, Higher, National 5 physics and National 4 in one class, and if that was an “optimal environment for a young person”.
He responded that it “depends on the context”. He said that a multi-level class supported by a range of professionals could lead to “a very active, engaged learning environment”.
Mr Swinney concluded: “I’m happy to explore it in more detail but fundamentally if there has been an educational disadvantage of multi-level teaching it is something that has been around Scottish education for a long, long time.”
Earlier this month, Mr Flanagan told the education committee that there were “very few pedagogical advantages to multi-level qualification teaching”.
He said it created additional workload for teachers “just to be able to cope” and resulted in “a poorer experience for all the students in the classroom”.
Mr Flanagan added: “Inevitably, it also alters the dynamic in the classroom, because you give one set of pupils some work to do while you teach the other set, and vice versa. Inevitably, if you do not have an even balance, the majority will see themselves as the class and the minority will feel that they are being tucked in at the end.”
Last week the chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Janet Brown, told the committee that the teaching of National 4, National 5 and Higher in the same class was “an unintended consequence...of the environment in which Curriculum for Excellence was introduced”.
The committee also heard last month from Dr Alan Britton, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Glasgow, who said that “while there are some relatively weak pedagogical arguments for multi-level teaching – the notion of peer support within the class and so on – I think the reality for most teachers is that if they were given the choice between multi-level teaching, they wouldn’t want it”.