Narrowing curriculum putting education of generation of pupils at risk: experts

A generation of pupils are at risk of having their education compromised because the number of subjects they can study is reducing, academics have warned.

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has created the “unintended consequence” of students being able to sit fewer exams, MSPs were told, with approximately half of Scottish schools only allowing six subjects at S4 level.

Taking evidence on the narrowing of the Scottish curriculum, the Education Committee heard some local authorities order schools to offer a set number of courses.

Professor Jim Scott, an education expert at the University of Dundee, said: “Some local authorities have mandated the schools, almost without exception, to do six courses in S4.”

The former headteacher compared the situation to a “virus that spread round the north of Scotland” with “outbreaks in the south and south-west”, and he warned: “We are in danger of a generation going past who have not had a good experience in education.”

He called for a mid-session review of CfE and – after unveiling a long document measuring all 357 secondary schools – added: “I have trouble saying to you that anything is improving in this at all.”

Mr Scott identified five areas where the Scottish education is struggling: modern languages, ICT, arts, technologies, and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects.

“Roughly half of Scotland’s schools are doing six [subjects],” he said, explaining that Stem subjects “struggle” when there are fewer options available.

He added: “We’ve got to stop this narrowing from happening.”

Discussing one possible cause of problems in Scotland’s school system, senior education lecturer at the University of Glasgow Dr Alan Britton said: “We’ve got a system of distributed responsibilities and therefore quite opaque accountabilities.

Dr Allan Britton from the University of Glasgow said that the 'profound backdrop' to education issues is a lack of clarity over accountability
Dr Alan Britton said the ‘profound backdrop’ to education issues is a lack of clarity over accountability (Scottish Parliament/PA)

“Yes, it’s in the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence for schools and headteachers to be empowered and autonomous to make decisions around the curriculum.

“But we’ve always had that tension between autonomy and central control, and that’s the profound backdrop to everything that’s happening.

“The unintended consequences arise from deep-rooted structures of governance in Scottish education itself, which we’ve never resolved.”

The number of tests schoolchildren can sit has reduced sharply, according to research by think tank Reform Scotland published this week.

A “minority” of Scottish state schools allow pupils to sit more than six exams, with some only offering five subjects, while more deprived areas have been hit the hardest – contradicting claims by Education Scotland made at the previous committee hearing.

William Hardie, policy advice manager at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, criticised the “lack of guidance” on the curriculum, meaning “schools and local authorities have been somewhat left to their own devices”.

Mr Hardie added: “It’s been quite clear in the research and work that has been carried out that the reduction in course choices – at S4 in particular – is a result of unintended consequence.

“There’s no intentional policy stating anywhere that there would be a reduction, I think that it’s all really an unintended consequence.”

Following the committee meeting, Scottish Labour shadow education secretary Iain Gray said the warning from Mr Scott “should finally be the wake-up call for John Swinney and Education Scotland to act”.

He added: “The SNP implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence and the significant cuts to the resources in our classrooms are to blame.

“The reduction in subject choices in our schools is a reduction in opportunities for our young people.”

Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, said: “While Nicola Sturgeon is busy pushing for another independence referendum, experts have fully exposed the extent of the subject choice crisis affecting so many schools across Scotland.

“Professor Scott’s detailed analysis tells us that the majority of state schools are now offering fewer subjects, undermining the strong Scottish tradition of breadth within the curriculum which was so admired around the world.

“Parents simply do not buy the argument that restricting subject choice is beneficial.

“Instead of giving statements on independence, Nicola Sturgeon should be explaining why experts think the SNP’s education reforms are failing a generation of pupils.”

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