Subject choices narrow at Scots schools amid teacher shortage

Schools in Scotland have “undoubtedly” suffered a narrowing of the subject choice for older pupils with growing concerns of a “uniform” approach to the classroom curriculum, MSPs have been warned.

Pupils have fewer options - and are leaving education with fewer qualifications than a decade ago the report reveals. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images
Pupils have fewer options - and are leaving education with fewer qualifications than a decade ago the report reveals. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images

And Nicola Sturgeon’s flagship drive to narrow the attainment gap in Scotland’s schools could by undermined by the diminishing range of options for pupils, according to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE).

Six “national” qualification courses are now the norm in fourth year for most pupils, down from eight or nine a decade ago under the old standard grades, a submission from the RSE to Holyrood’s education committee states. The committee has launched a probe into subject choice in schools.

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“The impact of reduced choice will be felt most keenly by those learners who leave school at S4 with fewer qualifications than previously might have been the case,” the RSE report states.

“This conflicts with the Scottish Government’s aspiration to close the attainment gap.”

The teacher recruitment crisis in Scotland has been blamed.

The issue has raised questions over the recently adopted Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and whether this is delivering on its lofty ambitions for classroom standards to rise.

Some subjects like computing and technological education have been increasingly disappearing from timetables over the lack of staff, it has been claimed.

There is “growing concern” about the narrowing of school curriculum across the UK, particularly in the context of international comparisons and the changing nature of work. “There has undoubtedly been a narrowing of the curriculum across Scottish secondary schools with fewer subjects being taken in S4 compared to the breadth of choice available under the pre-CfE standard grades,” the RSE submission states.

“Recent research indicates that the majority of Scottish secondary schools now offer six qualification courses at S4.”

The RSE said this had not been down to any conscious decision, but was an unintended consequence of national guidance stating 160 hours of study was needed for each national qualification.

The situation also highlights the “pressure” being placed on youngsters to make decisions early on at school, by the end of S3, about the subjects they want to continue with, thus narrowing their options.

“Fewer course options at S4 also reduces the learner’s room for manoeuvre in the event that she does not succeed in one or more of their chosen subjects,” the RSE states.

“This is not only important for those learners who plan to leave at the end of their compulsory schooling, but also for those who intend to progress to further study in their chosen subjects at S5/6.”

The extent to which a “blanket approach” to schooling is being imposed is also raised as a concern.

“While a uniform approach may provide consistency among schools within a local authority, it may not be in the best interests or meet the needs of individual learners within secondary schools,” the RSE states.

A spokesman for the EIS teaching union said: “The narrowing of subject choices in many secondary schools is a serious issue, which is having a worrying impact on the diversity of educational opportunities available to pupils. A decade of austerity has brought deep cuts to school budgets, reductions in teacher numbers and a decline in subject-specialist teachers across a range of curricular areas. In a growing number of cases, this has led to schools dropping entire subjects for financial reasons, with serious implications for our young people.”

Major differences were uncovered between the schools in the same council area offering the greatest number of Higher subjects to pupils and the school offering the least, in figures obtained two years ago by the Scottish Conservatives.

They found the gap in Edinburgh between schools with the most and the least subjects on offer was 21, while in the Highlands it was as high as 24. In Glasgow, schools that are relatively close together vary from 13 subjects on offer up to 27. It emerged at the start of this school term that almost 700 teaching posts remained unfilled.

Subjects such as science, maths and computing were the most in need, with the majority of shortages across the country being in those key subject areas.

Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “There has been a significant ‘squeeze’ on the number of subjects available and therefore on choice for pupils.

“If choice is narrowed, the inevitable consequence is a detrimental impact on pupils unable to study a wider range of Highers and Advanced Highers.”

A government spokesperson said: “More young people are choosing to stay at school after S4, which means they are achieving passes at a higher level than previously.

“Our focus is on a young person’s overall achievements by the time they leave school, not just what they achieve within a single year.”