When Scotland’s new curriculum was being devised, one of the ambitions was the new regime would allow pupils to take Scotland’s “gold standard” qualification – the Higher – over two years, allowing pupils to study subjects in more depth and bypass qualifications they did not need.
New research has, however, revealed – almost five years on from the introduction of revamped Highers for the new curriculum – that three-quarters of secondaries who took part in a survey say it is not possible to study for any Highers over two years in their schools.
The "two-term dash" – so-called because pupils usually have the first two terms of a single school year to study for a subject at Higher – is, therefore, very much still a live issue, despite this having been seen as a flaw of the Scottish education system for decades.
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The survey, which received responses from around a quarter of state secondary schools found that 75 per cent offered no Highers over two years; 8 per cent allowed pupils to study one or two Highers over two years; 7 per cent allowed them to study more than two subjects over two years; and 10 per cent gave the option of studying all Highers over two years.
Twelve of the secondaries offering no Highers over two years said they planned to start introducing the qualification. However, the respondents said that timetabling and staffing difficulties, particularly in smaller secondaries, impacted on the ability to offer this.
One respondent commented: “Only a large school could manage the challenge of timetabling both one-year and two-year Higher courses in the same session.”
It was also suggested that better “articulation” between National 5 qualifications and Higher would mean students could be taught the same content, but be examined at different levels, and that this would ease timetabling issues.
The survey was conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills committee, which has begun an inquiry into subject choice in schools amidst fears that the curriculum being delivered in Scottish schools is narrowing.
Last week, Scotland’s chief inspector of education, Gayle Gorman, was forced to admit that teacher shortages were reducing the curriculum schools could offer.
The admission came in the wake of a report published by the inspectorate the day before, which found that difficulties recruiting teachers in “a majority of secondary schools” was “constraining curriculum developments”.
The survey also looked at the possibility of students bypassing National 5 and going straight to Higher, another idea which has been mooted as a potential benefit of greater flexibility under Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).
The survey asked how many subjects could be taken at Higher without first having taken a course at National 5. Around half of schools which responded require a National 5 before a pupil can take a Higher, while around a fifth have this option for one or two subjects, and 27 per cent offer this for more than two subjects.
One respondent said: “I have never been aware of CfE being designed to bypass N5”. Another said: “Whilst the notion of 'bypassing' qualifications may seem attractive in some settings it would have the effect of reducing options/choice in our setting”.
There were also concerns that it risked a pupil leaving without qualifications, if they failed a higher having not taken a lower-level National 5 in the same subject.
“Our parents, students and teachers have told us they would be concerned about the risk of potentially not having N5 as a safety net,” said one respondent.
However, another said that direct entry to Higher was common in subjects such as business management, PE, modern studies, and, to a lesser extent, in art, music, drama, graphic communication and design and manufacture.