Choice of subjects in Scottish schools falls

The constraints on subject choice in Scots schools has “worsened considerably” in recent years, new research today indicates.

State schools have been continuing to reduce the number of National 4 and 5 exams children are permitted to sit, prompting warnings of a “new type of attainment gap”.

A “minority” of Scottish state schools allow pupils to sit more than six exams, with some only offering five subjects, compared to independent schools that typically continue to offer eight or nine.

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Children whose parents can afford to send them to private school or move within another school’s catchment area will be unaffected by this “unintended consequence of the Curriculum for Excellence”, director of Reform Scotland Chris Deerin said. Calling on the Scottish Government to urgently address the situation, Mr Deerin said: “We are in real danger of opening up a new type of attainment gap in Scotland – one where children who are allowed to sit eight or nine National 4s or 5s will have a distinct advantage over those restricted to five or six, regardless of the latter’s ability.

In many state schools across Scotland the number of subjects available in National 4 and 5 level exams is falling. Picture: contributed

“The schools cutting the number of exams on offer are typically those serving our more deprived communities, further limiting the life opportunities of children who may already be disadvantaged.”

Freedom of Information requests by the group revealed that, in 2016, all schools in Edinburgh, East Dunbartonshire and Dumfries and Galloway offered eight exams. Now no schools in either East Dunbartonshire or Dumfries and Galloway offer eight, and the limit in Edinburgh varies between six and eight.

The implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) by the Scottish Government has been blamed for the reduction in available subjects, which critics say shows the “hallmark of poor management”.

Keir Bloomer, chair of the Commission on School Reform and one of the authors of Curriculum for Excellence, said: “One of the purposes of CfE was to broaden pupils’ education, but instead the way in which it is being implemented is narrowing it significantly.

“There is ample opportunity for pupils to combine practical and academic options when they are enabled to sit nine, eight or even seven exams, but when we narrow it down to six or five there is very little room for manoeuvre.

“Reducing the number of subject options is not a government policy. It has come about by accident – the unintended consequence of ill-conceived advice. This is the hallmark of poor management.

“This is a lose-lose.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the school curriculum provided “significant flexibility” and allowed schools to design a “bespoke three-year senior phase” comprising a range of qualifications to meet the needs of the young people at the school”.

She said: “What matters is the qualifications and awards that pupils leave school with and not only what they study in S4.” Almost two-thirds now leave school in sixth year, with record numbers going into work, training or further study.