Why too much choice may limit life chances

20th November 2015 at 00:00
subject choice is as key as attainment
Poor students more likely to opt for subjects that entrench inequality, report finds

The Government drive to close the “attainment gap” will fail to boost the life chances of the most deprived children because many are not making the best subject choices to progress, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are calling for academic subjects such as English, maths, sciences and languages to be compulsory for longer, and for schools to give pupils better advice about the long-term implications of their choices.

Scotland marks 50 years of comprehensive schooling this year, but pupils are still being set on different tracks according to social class, said Cristina Iannelli, lead researcher and professor of education and social stratification at Edinburgh.

She said that subject choice followed a social pattern, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to opt for subjects such as business or technical education than traditional subjects, which are more likely to lead to university study and higher-paid jobs.

The research comes after the Scottish government launched the £100 million Scottish Attainment Challenge earlier this year, pledging that it would be the first country in the world to close the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils.


More inequitable system

Researchers looked at pupils’ subject choices before Curriculum for Excellence and the new qualifications were fully implemented.

Under the new regime, the system could become more unequal, Professor Iannelli warned, with students now studying fewer subjects in the senior phase of secondary and with no compulsory subjects from S4 onwards (see panel, left).

She said: “If you say your education system is comprehensive and everybody has access to a certain curriculum, you would not expect to find a strong social pattern [for subject choice]. But in Scotland, students take different subjects depending on their family background. This prompts you to question whether it really is as comprehensive as it looks from the outside.”

The researchers conclude: “Allowing people to drop academic subjects too early is detrimental to young people’s prospects.”


‘Not just about attainment’

Attainment was not the whole story, Professor Iannelli warned. “Most UK studies focus on attainment differences,” she said.

“I don’t want to disregard attainment – there is an attainment gap – but it’s not just about attainment. Providing clear information and support in curriculum decisions in the crucial years of secondary school is as important as improving the attainment of more socially disadvantaged young people.”

The researchers looked at about 5,000 Scottish students who passed through S3 to S6 between 2007 and 2010. They used data on subject choice from the Scottish Qualifications Authority which had been linked to information about the occupation and education of the pupils’ parents through the Scottish Longitudinal Study.

The results show that pupils in S3 and S4 whose parents were in high managerial or professional occupations were more likely to choose to study science and languages than pupils whose parents were in “routine occupations”, such as waiting tables, cleaning or labouring.

Children from less well-off families were found to be more likely to study subjects such as business or technical education.

During the final years of secondary in S5 and S6, very few of the students wavered from the path they had chosen in S3 and S4. If they had previously not opted to study a science or a language, only a tiny number picked up these courses in the final two years of school.

By S5, English and maths were no longer compulsory and pupils were able to opt out of these subjects. However, the pupils from advantaged backgrounds tended not to: 87 per cent continued to study English and 74 per cent kept up maths. By contrast, just 48 per cent of the pupils from less advantaged backgrounds continued with English, while 40 per cent kept up maths (see table, above).

The report concludes: “Education systems such as the Scottish system, which allow flexibility in curriculum choices, offer another avenue for social inequalities to emerge because more socially advantaged parents have more information and resources for ensuring that their children make the best decisions, leading to higher educational attainment and better jobs.”

Which way next? Choosing subjects in the Scottish system

Today, pupils in Scotland are free to choose the subjects they wish to continue beyond S3; pre-Curriculum for Excellence, they had to study maths and English, a language, a science, a social subject, and a creative and aesthetic subject.

In the latter years of the Standard-grade qualifications, these rules began to relax. Now, with a new curriculum and qualifications in place, pupils can opt for any subject they want when they reach the end of S3.

But while it is in theory possible to drop core subjects such as English and maths, this would be highly unlikely to happen, secondary headteachers say.

Pupils, however, are signing up for fewer subjects. Previously, they would have taken eight subjects into the qualifications phase of their secondary schooling; today, it will be five or six, depending on the school.

This system stands in contrast to England, where the government is pressing for pupils to study for at least five GCSEs from the “English Baccalaureate” suite of traditional core subjects. The Conservative government has said the move means all pupils have an equal chance of success. However, critics have said it is unrealistic and limiting to push students of all abilities down this academic route.

The expert view: ‘We may be exacerbating social inequalities’

Daniel Murphy, pictured, a retired secondary headteacher now teaching at the University of Edinburgh and co-editor of Everyone’s Future: lessons from the first fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling, writes:


The research rightly highlights the importance of the “facilitating subjects” (for example, maths, individual sciences and foreign languages) for pupils aspiring to, or capable of, university entrance. But the most important factor limiting access to these subjects is prior attainment. Understanding is often built cumulatively. Gaps at one level hinder progress at the next.

Teaching experience and national statistics confirm that it is hard to pass at university entrance level if earlier attainment levels are low – and more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have low prior attainment. Therefore, the under-researched changes taking place under the banner of the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence demand urgent attention. Increasing diversity and choice may be inadvertently exacerbating social inequalities. Many schools are offering fewer subjects in S4, putting further pressure on choice, while the welcome development of vocational curricular routes through the Developing the Young Workforce initiative runs the danger of reintroducing the “twin track” curriculum rejected after the 1992 Howie report.

Change is happening differently in each school or area because Scotland has no clear vision of 15-18 education, and no unifying framework to join together academic and vocational learning. In Everyone’s Future, we argue that a universal graduation certificate at 18 could help provide this framework.

Scotland now needs a wider civic debate on the structure of educational opportunities at 15-18, and on how to ensure fair access for all.

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