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Cuts in S4 subject choices impacting on pupils, committee told

MSPs heard there is evidence of a narrowing of the curriculum at that stage.

A reduction in the number of subject choices in some schools is having a significant impact on pupils’ prospects, MSPs have been told.

Experts told a Scottish Parliament committee of a trend towards a “narrowing” of the curriculum, particularly in S4, meaning the range of subjects on offer to pupils is being squeezed.

As a result, youngsters are missing out on studying some beneficial subjects and the options open to them further down the line are being reduced, MSPs heard, with pupils in the most deprived areas particularly hit.

Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee heard from a range of experts on Wednesday on the 2018 exam diet and the way Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is working.

Under the former system, pupils typically studied eight subjects in S4.

However, Professor Jim Scott, an honorary professor of education at the University of Dundee, said schools are offering anything from five to eight courses to pupils in S4 under the new curriculum.

The evidence suggests that equity is not being achieved and in fact things appear to be getting somewhat worse Professor Jim Scott

Having surveyed all 359 secondary schools, he concluded: “The latest position is that 54% of Scottish secondary schools are offering their children only six courses.

“Approximately a third, slightly less than that, are offering seven courses.

“About an 11th are offering eight courses and there are still three or four hardy souls who are offering five courses.

“The evidence demonstrates that the problem for many middle and upper ability-ranged children is that their choice is being squeezed, particularly in the five and six course schools.”

In that instance, children would tend to choose maths and English, then two sciences and a social subject, or vice versa, leaving “the entire remainder of the Scottish curriculum” fighting to be the final subject picked.

“Needless to say, much of what would have been a beneficial experience for these children in times past has gone and that obviously has an impact on attainment,” the former head teacher added.

Had the S4 situation continued as it was in 2013, there would have been an extra 622,000 qualifications in Scotland over the five subsequent years, he said, describing the figure as “almost unbelievable”.

He continued: “That curriculum narrowing has both impacted significantly on the quantity of attainment, but has also impacted on the progression pathways then available to children.”

Children at the lower levels of ability appear to be worst-affected by CfE, MSPs were told.

Prof Scott told them: “The evidence here suggests that equity is not being achieved and in fact things appear to be getting somewhat worse.”

We found a clear relationship in the rate of reduction of the number of subject choices made by S4 pupils and the level of school deprivation Dr Marina Shapira

Dr Marina Shapira, of the University of Stirling’s social policy department, said she too found a variation in the number of subjects offered to S4 children across different local authorities.

She said: “Our findings were quite striking because we found a clear relationship in the rate of reduction of the number of subject choices made by S4 pupils and the level of school deprivation.

“This finding is very worrying.

“In general we have this trend of narrowing the curriculum. On average there is a reduction in the number of subject choices across the entire secondary sector in Scotland.

“However, the reduction is larger in schools in higher areas of deprivation and the reduction is larger in schools where there are more children on free school meals, which means more children from deprived socio-economic backgrounds.”

Deputy convener of the committee, Labour MSP Johann Lamont, said she finds the idea of young people having “fewer chances in poorer areas than they had five years ago” to be “deeply troubling”.

Education Secretary John Swinney said after the hearing: “Our focus is on a young person’s achievement at the end of their senior phase, not just within a single year, and the long term trend shows a greater proportion of young people staying on at school beyond S4.

“Studying for fewer qualifications means more time for learning and teaching in the subjects that are being studied. It also means more time for studying for awards other than ‘traditional’ national qualifications.

“Young people are gaining a broader range of qualifications and the proportion of them leaving school with qualifications has increased in recent years.”

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