ALMOST Half of Scottish secondaries have significantly narrowed their curriculum at S4, offering just six courses instead of the eight that was typical before the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, according to figures released today.
One of the architects of the new curriculum branded the finding an “unintended consequence” of the project, which had come about through “bad management”.
Keir Bloomer, a member of the review group that produced CfE, called on education secretary Angela Constance to make it clear that reducing opportunity in S4 was not part of government policy.
Today’s figures were obtained by Jim Scott, a retired headteacher-turned-academic who hit the headlines last week with his research, which highlights how the curriculum is narrowing at S4.
His updated findings, shared with TESS today, show that the number of schools offering just five subjects in S4 is falling – he estimates this model now exists in no more than a dozen schools. However, taking just six courses in S4 is becoming the norm in Scotland, he says.
“The pattern appears to be slowly resolving to a situation where almost half of schools are offering six courses, just under a third are offering seven courses and almost exactly a sixth are offering eight,” Dr Scott adds.
The drop in the number of courses has been put down to the councils’ perception that there is simply not enough time to do more than five or six – a situation that Mr Bloomer called “just nonsensical”.
Councils, he said, were wrongly assuming that pupils started from scratch in S4 and none of their prior learning was relevant.
Mr Bloomer said: “If you had asked any of the ministers in post since CfE was published in 2004, ‘Is it part of the plan to reduce subjects being studied in S4?’, they would have said ‘No’.
“The fact that this really quite major change has come about without either of the governments in charge wanting it to come about really makes a statement about the way in which the programme as a whole has been seen through. This has happened by accident; it’s an unintended consequence. In my opinion, unintended consequences are a hallmark of bad management.”
Subjects disadvantaged by the new curriculum include languages, business studies, computing, some of the creative and aesthetic subjects, the sciences and social subjects, Dr Scott finds. The situation for languages, especially, is “near to critical”, Dr Scott states in his recent paper, The Governance of Curriculum for Excellence in Scottish Secondary Schools: structural divergence, curricular distortion and reduced attainment. Over the two years since the new qualifications were introduced “half of their candidates [have] disappeared and almost half of their attainment [has] followed”, he adds.
Scottish modern languages teachers have called for it to be the norm for pupils to continue with at least one language into S4.
Gillian Campbell-Thow, chair of the Scottish Association for Language Teaching, said: “The portfolio of languages that are available are dependent on qualified teachers. It’s a vicious circle; if we don’t have the languages at school, then we don’t always get the follow through into further education and higher education, and ultimately initial teacher education…It’s a critical time for all languages and they all deserved to be protected.”
Overall, Dr Scott reports, since the new qualifications were introduced in 2014, enrolment at Scottish qualifications level 3 to 5 has dropped by 17 per cent and the number of pupils passing at these levels has dropped by 24 per cent.
Many schools and councils cut the number of courses on offer in S4 after the Scottish Qualifications Authority estimated it would take 160 hours to deliver each one. They drew up their timetables accordingly.
A Scottish government spokesperson responded to Dr Scott’s findings, saying that a “record proportion” of school-leavers were securing jobs, training or continued education and training. They added: “The gap between our most and least deprived school-leavers achieving at least one Higher has reduced considerably since 2007.
“The figures contained in this report do not fully recognise school-leavers’ skills and qualifications, which are a far more important, meaningful measure of performance.”
A third of councils dictate the number of subjects
Just a third of Scottish councils have dictated the number of courses schools must offer in S4, the map opposite shows.
A number of councils in the North East have adopted this monolithic approach, with all their secondaries delivering six subjects in S4.
Laurence Findlay, director of education and social care at Moray Council, which has adopted the model, says the authority’s eight secondaries have introduced “a three-year senior phase”.
This means that, while a pupil can drop a subject at the end of S3, they can then pick it up again in S5 or S6. Mr Findlay says: “Over 80 per cent of our pupils stay for six years at school. We see the senior phase as a three-year continuum where progress can be horizontal, as well as vertical.”
The broad general education is in place until the end of S3, after which pupils have the chance to specialise.
“Having had a broad experience up to S3, young people have the maturity to then choose what they want to do,” Mr Findlay says. “The first S6 cohort [under the new system] is in S6 now so it will be a while before we can evaluate how successful it has been.”
Dr Jim Scott: ‘There’s confusion at many levels’
The development of Curriculum for Excellence has been long and complex, embracing 14 years, multiple steering groups and several governments.
As is usually the case with major national policy initiatives, the policies and “advice” emerging from this complex birth have been subject to reinterpretation at all levels from the political chamber to the individual classroom.
In the case of CfE, however, there appears – from the views of interviewees across the system – to have been greater than normal confusion at many levels.
This has its origins in the changing directions of steering committees and periods of inactivity followed by the hectic issuing of curricular guidance and policy documents.
There have been well-meant but seemingly unsuccessful attempts at “simplification” and “debureaucratisation” and the parallel appearance of large quantities of examination materials. Confusion over senior phase course structures has further complicated the matter and this should be resolved.
A reduction to six S4 courses was never a planned aspect of CfE but it is an expedient measure resulting from some schools’ and authorities’ interpretation of what is now possible within time constraints.
If schools offering seven or eight courses can support students to success there is little or no need for six or five-course approaches.
The phrase “postcode lottery” is overused. However, until the issue of S4 curricular structures is resolved in Scottish secondaries it is perhaps not inappropriate.
Dr Jim Scott, of the University of Dundee, is a retired headteacher and is researching
the political and educational governance of education in post-war Scotland