Narrowing of the curriculum is spreading ‘like a virus’

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
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A reduction in the number of subjects that Scottish pupils can study risks compromising the education of a generation, academics have warned politicians.

Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has had the “unintended consequence” of students being able to take fewer exams, with the situation likened to a virus spreading around the country.

Professor Jim Scott of Dundee University, a former headteacher, told the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee: “We are in danger of a generation going past who have not had a good experience in education.”

Some local authorities have mandated their schools, almost without exception, to do six courses in S4, he said. About half of Scottish schools now only allow that number.

Prof Scott 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.”

Scottish education is struggling in many areas, including modern languages, ICT, arts and STEM subjects, he said. “It’s like a virus that spread around the north of Scotland with outbreaks in the south and south west. We’ve got to stop this narrowing from happening.”

Dr Alan Britton, senior education lecturer at the University of Glasgow, said one problem was a lack of clarity over accountability: “We’ve got a system of distributed responsibilities and therefore quite opaque accountabilities. Yes, it’s in the spirit of CfE 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.”

William Hardie, policy advice manager at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, criticised the “lack of guidance” on the curriculum.

He 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.”

The same committee also heard concerns about teachers having to cover National 4, National 5 and Higher qualifications in the same class because of teacher shortages.

“Tri-level” teaching is a growing problem that affects teaching standards, MSPs were told.

Mr Hardie said it was particularly acute in the sciences and computing: “While courses may have similar titles, a National 4 in physics will be very different from a National 5 course in physics, but quite often they will be taught together, which can obviously impact on the quality of teaching. Sometimes that can be exacerbated by having to teach National 4, National 5 and Higher in the same classes.”

Multi-course teaching of this kind is often the only way a school can offer particular subjects, he said.


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