School subject choice reduction a ‘catastrophe’, MSPs told

A reduction of subject choices in S4 at most Scottish schools is a “catastrophe” for pupils, MSPs have been told.

The change is leading to students making subject choices “too soon”, increasing the attainment gap and causing schools to stop offering some subjects for senior pupils, according to submissions at Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee.

The committee is holding an inquiry into subject choice following reforms that introduced a three-year senior phase.

Most schools have cut subject choices in this phase from eight to either six (57%) or seven (30%) according to a survey referenced by the NASUWT teachers union General Secretary Chris Keates in her submission to the committee.

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Chris Keates, General Secretary of NASUWT, said staffing and funding constraints contributed to subjects being limited (Peter Byrne/PA)

She said: “The NASUWT agrees that the current model is restricting pupil choice and progression beyond core subjects and undermining the viability of other subjects.

“Feedback from members shows that in some schools many of the most able pupils are choosing to leave, because there are not enough of their chosen Advanced Higher courses running.”

She said that in one case a pupil moved to a private school to have a wider choice of subjects.

Ms Keates said staffing and funding constraints are contributing to subjects being limited.

She criticised the need for teachers to have up to three different levels in a single class, saying it causes “intolerable” stress to teachers and hits pupil achievement.

Her views were echoed by submissions from current and former teachers and parents.

Iain Aitken, a prinicipal teacher of geography, said: “The system is fundamentally broken.

“There is an urgent need to revert to a system where pupils can follow at least eight subjects in S4.

“Pupils are now effectively picking their Higher options in S3, which is far too early and the number of subjects they can do is far too restrictive.”

Jim Sutherland, recently retired headteacher of Lochaber High School in Fort William, said attainment is falling due to the reduction in subjects from eight to six.

He said: “Many young people are forced to concentrate on the subjects they will require to progress to the next stage of their education.”

He said this means many are no longer taking subjects such as art, music, drama and languages – sometimes affecting course viability.

Mr Sutherland added: “I believe that the narrowing of the curriculum in S4 has contributed to widening – not closing – the attainment gap.”

Parents Mark and Sally Gunn from the Highlands said the new structure has “seriously damaged the progression of the most academically able”.

They said: “The enforced reduction to just six subjects at S4, down from eight (even nine for those able to take on extras like music in their own time) has been a catastrophe.

“Schools cannot maintain teaching numbers as a result.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said the system was “flexible” and “personalised” and focuses on a pupil’s achievement at the end of the senior phase and “not just within a single year”.

He added: “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, and young people are now gaining a broader range of qualifications.”