Narrow curriculum concerns overshadow exam success

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A fall in the number of pupils taking exams in modern languages, arts and social sciences has spurred warnings from opposition parties that Scotland risks a narrowing curriculum.

Those taking Higher French fell 14.5 per cent and Higher German 13 per cent, with pass marks in both subjects falling, although Higher Spanish sittings rose eight per cent.

Overall the number of pupils taking modern languages at Higher dropped by six per cent, with history down almost four per cent and geography 2.6 per cent, according to figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

Although education secretary John Swinney, teaching unions and politicians of all parties congratulated the approximately 137,000 pupils who sat exams this year, Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, sounded a note of caution.

“A fall in pupils studying key subjects should be a red flag. A narrow curriculum is not in the interests of Scotland’s pupils but we continue to see subjects drop in terms of the number of pupils sitting them,” he said.

The pass rate for National 5s stood at 79.5 per cent, almost unchanged from 79.4 per cent last year, while for Highers it was also steady at 77 per cent.

However, the numbers sitting arts exams at all three main tiers – National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher – fell by three per cent, while in social sciences it fell by six per cent for Advanced Higher and four per cent at Higher.

Liz Smith, spokeswoman of the Scottish Conservatives, said the backdrop of budget cuts, staffing shortages and curriculum changes meant the results were achieved “in too many cases, in spite of Scotland’s school system, not because of it”.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said Mr Swinney had to keep his promise to cut teachers’ workloads this year. He added: “Scotland’s teachers have again gone that extra mile to support their students’ learning, despite the enormous workload pressures faced by the profession.”

Entries for Higher French fell from 4,581 in 2016 to 3,918 this year, with German also down to 890 from 1,019.
Spanish, however, continued to gain in popularity, with the number of Higher entries up to 2,809 from 2,600.
Gillian Campbell-Thow, chairwoman of the Scottish Association of Language Teachers, said the curriculum structure was squeezing languages. She added: “We also need to look at initial teacher education for people to be able to get qualified in more than one language. The Scottish government’s language strategy is not working at the moment because curriculum pathways are not supporting it and the teachers are not there.”

Another language teacher, who has close links to the government but declined to be identified, called for more innovation and imagination in the way languages are presented in some secondary schools.

She praised the 1+2 scheme in primaries, which gives pupils exposure to two foreign languages, but said: “More risks could be taken in making languages attractive to young people – for instance, there’s potential to counter some of the negativity around Brexit through developing cultural links overseas and countering narrow nationalism.”

However, a spokeswoman for the Scottish government said: “This is the third consecutive year that Higher entries for modern languages have exceeded 8,000, despite a fall in the size of the school year groups involved.

“Our ambition is to expand and improve language learning, so that young people are equipped with the skills they need in an increasingly globalised world.”


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