More choices, fewer chances

8th June 2012 at 01:00

As pupils move from second into third year in the brave new world of Curriculum for Excellence, the majority will have gone through a subject choice process.

This is taking a number of forms; a choice from each curriculum area, usually eight in total for one or even two years for those yet to make the move to the 3+3 model. Other schools have given more freedom, but most have some subjects compulsory in third year. The reduction of subjects selected satisfies the Curriculum for Excellence principles of choice and personalisation, along with increasing depth.

If the choice of subjects is for one year only, there may well be some future problems. No guarantees can be given that all combinations chosen will be possible, moving from eight courses in third year to five or six in fourth. Indeed, it would be very unlikely.

This creates two issues, one from the pupil and the parent body, having embarked on a combination of courses with which they cannot continue and a second from teaching staff concerned about a pupil taking a course in fourth year that they did not study in third. If the choice is for two years, the concept of the joint S456 combined senior phase is compromised.

"The design of the S3 curriculum should avoid closing off options for the choice of qualifications which pupils may want to have open to them when they enter the senior phase at the start of S4," wrote Bill Maxwell, chief executive of Education Scotland in his letter to directors of education (February 2012).

If that is the goal, a "no subject choice" third year is one answer with a continued emphasis on the broad general education allowing all pupils to choose all available courses, at an appropriate level, as they move into the senior phase.

Personalisation and choice can still be incorporated within courses through choice of contexts, research projects; presentation methods, learning styles etc and depth can still be increased by specialist teaching, using subject rotas, perhaps in science and social subjects.

The last benefit is efficiency of staffing, leaving more staff for a rich and varied senior phase meeting the needs of more learners in terms of both subjects and levels offered.

I wonder why so few schools have adopted this approach - perhaps it is just too different? Do secondary teachers always assume the word "choice" is related to subjects and not an integral part of an effective learning process as it can be in primary schools? To give choice in third year may be the reverse of the "more choices, more chances" approach and less in this case may eventually lead to more.

Derek Thompson, headteacher, Westhill Academy, Aberdeenshire (writing in a personal capacity).

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