‘Inequity for students’ as schools cut S4 options

16th March 2018 at 00:00
Variation in schools’ course choices puts some pupils at a disadvantage, says study

Curriculum for Excellence was always billed as a broadening of horizons: it would expand the range of opportunities that schools puts before their pupils and do away with narrow measures of success based purely on “academic” qualifications.

The hard numbers in a new analysis of schools’ curricular offerings, however, raise fears that, as pupils enter the crucial senior years of secondary, the range of courses they can take is actually shrinking – and that some will see their educational prospects suffer.

The analysis by the University of Dundee’s Professor Jim Scott, shared exclusively with Tes Scotland, shows that more than half of secondary schools he examined built their S4 timetables around six subjects: 54 per cent, up from 45 per cent in 2016-17. The range of approaches at S4 follows on from myriad curricular structures Scott identified at S1-3 – a different structure for every 1.4 secondaries – and he suggests any gaps in the system are less likely to be overcome by “‘average’ and ‘less-able’ learners”.

‘Poor learning’

A minority of schools has established curricular structures that Scott says would be “inadvisable in any circumstances”, either because they are too narrow – 9 or 10 courses at S1-3, leaving minimal space for areas such as creative subjects, languages and interdisciplinary learning – or too broad, with 19-24 subjects leading to “poor learning”.

“To then crash back to six subjects in S4 means that you have frittered away a lot of curricular time on a very shallow approach to a very broad range of learning experiences – and may thus have failed to ensure smooth progression with adequate time for learning in depth in the six-to-seven subjects you’re taking forward,” says Scott.

Scott, who presented his findings to the Royal Society of Edinburgh this week, says Education Scotland reports do not indicate that attainment is worse in schools that offer seven or eight subjects at S4, which suggests “an issue of inequity” in what is offered to pupils around Scotland.


The array of approaches to the curriculum includes many “disguised traditional curricula” at S1-2. Scott says these appear little different to what might have been expected before the idea of the S1-3 broad general education (BGE) ushered in by Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – which was meant to mark a break from a broad S1-2 and more exam-focused S3-4 – with “perhaps little if any gain in terms of the nature and quality of learning but a potential loss in terms of quantity/quality of attainment”.

Scott, a former secondary head, also fears schools are not receiving enough support nationally or locally in developing curricular structures. Of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, he found that 23 appeared to have no council-wide curriculum policy and only two had “CfE-era” (post-2010) curriculum polices.

“Why, therefore, have some mandated their schools to adopt a certain number of courses in given years of the curriculum? On what is this based?” says Scott. He adds that there is a “further issue of inequity for students” as the onus for designing curricular structures is on school leaders – a small number of whom pursue “experimental” approaches – yet not all of them will have the same curricular and timetabling expertise.

‘Narrowing the curriculum’

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary heads, says that if the research indicates a “narrowing of the curriculum, that would be worrying”. As well as leaving pupils with fewer options – and certain groups “disadvantaged” as a result – he fears there could be knock-on effects on staffing levels in certain subjects. Thewliss says the time is right to review how the BGE “articulates” into the senior phase.

Michael Wood, general secretary of education directors’ body ADES, tells Tes Scotland that he believes a six-course structure is “most effective”, adding: “As soon as you get into seven or eight choices, that gives less time for individual subject areas.” He does not believe that six subjects should ever be nationally mandated, however, explaining that the large differences in size and geographical context of Scotland’s schools requires some flexibility, as long as attainment does not suffer.

Wood is “quite convinced” that schools receive enough support, certainly locally, in building curricular structures. He adds that schools’ approaches to qualifications are not as uniform or linear as in the past – some pupils may skip lower-level courses to progress quicker to Higher, for example – so looking at S4 curricular structures in isolation may not provide the full picture.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, says that fewer choices at S4 is likely to be indicative of a more general tendency towards less flexibility in the senior phase. He says that subjects such as art and music are likely to suffer from reduced subject choices, with reductions in teachers in certain subjects producing a “double whammy”.

The result, he fears, is that less-academic pupils will suffer as it becomes more common for pupils to be “fed through the same sausage machine” in schools.

A Scottish government spokesman says: “Choices regarding the curriculum design are taken at a local level to ensure that they can be tailored to specific needs, but every child in Scotland should have access to a broad range of subject choices, including college and work-based learning options.”

He adds: “Education Scotland provides comprehensive guidance to schools on curriculum development.”

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