Do pupils face a postcode lottery on exams?

27th May 2016 at 00:00
Heads dismiss concerns about schools offering fewer courses in S4

Scottish pupils are facing a “lottery” over how many exam courses they are able to take, depending on what school they attend and where they live, it was claimed last week.

Thinktank Reform Scotland published data showing that the number of courses pupils can pursue in S4 range from five to eight, meaning that some pupils are missing out.

Headteachers, however, have hit back, saying that the thinktank’s report misses the “fundamental issue”. Here, we investigate the arguments from both sides.

What did the Reform Scotland research show?

Reform Scotland was following up on research that had been conducted by Jim Scott at the University of Dundee. He found that since the new qualifications were introduced in 2014, enrolment at Scottish qualifications levels 3 to 5 had dropped by 17 per cent. The number of pupils passing at these levels had also dropped, by 24 per cent.

Dr Scott produced a map of Scotland showing that some authorities had taken a blanket decision to run a certain number of courses – such as those in the north east of the country, which generally offer six.

However, in other council areas, the number of subjects pursued in S4 can vary from one school to the next.

So is Reform Scotland just regurgitating research published earlier this year?

Not quite. Using Freedom of Information legislation, it has published the number of subjects that can be studied in S4 on a school-by-school basis, effectively “naming and shaming” the schools that are offering students the fewest subjects.

The overall message is, however, the same. The number of subjects that a Scottish pupil can study in S4 ranges from five to eight, depending on which school they go to.

Keir Bloomer, a former education director and current Reform Scotland advisory board member, said: “The result is that a very able student at one school could emerge with fewer qualifications than a similarly able student at a different school.”

That sounds like a postcode lottery…

It depends just how important you think it is that pupils get the chance to study seven or eight subjects in S4.

Gavin Clark, headteacher at Preston Lodge High in East Lothian, said that his school offered S4 pupils a maximum of six subjects only, and the report missed “the fundamental issue”. The real concern, he said, was overassessment. If a pupil was able enough to study for eight N5s in S4 then it might be a better idea to bypass them altogether. Instead, they could start Highers early, and complete them over two years, he said.

“In presuming that five or six [courses] will disadvantage a young person, Reform Scotland has fallen into the trap of confusing quantity of qualifications with quality,” Mr Clark added.

Is Mr Clark a lone voice?

No. The general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, Jim Thewliss, also argues that Reform Scotland has got it wrong. The pupils’ level of attainment should be assessed when they left school, not at the end of S4, he claimed. He told TESS: “Pupils who were going to get five Highers under the previous system will get five Highers and more under this system.”

But is the curriculum being narrowed too soon?

Dr Scott was worried about the implications of the new curricular models for languages. The situation for modern languages is “near critical” because of the drop in pupils enrolling for these subjects in S4, he said.

And languages are not the only subjects that are being hit. Last year, in a survey of 314 geography teachers covering 31 of Scotland’s 32 councils, the vast majority reported “a big drop” in take-up of their subject.

Most identified the cause as schools allowing pupils to study fewer subjects in S4. The subject was being “inadvertently throttled”, concluded the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, which carried out the survey.

What is the government saying?

A government spokesperson said that individual authorities and schools made decisions on the number of qualifications studied “to ensure they best meet the needs of their pupils, taking local circumstances into account”.

They added: “Curriculum for Excellence as a whole is about providing learners with the range of qualifications and experiences that meet their individual needs and aspirations – it goes much wider than the number of exams that young people study in one particular year.”


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