School curriculum review must examine growing inequalities in subject choice, experts argue

Ben Wray

Review must question “instrumental economic view of education”, according to Gary Walsh from Curriculum for Equity

  • Scottish Parliament Education Commitee publishes report into subject choice, finding “serious concerns” with secondary education at senior level and calling for a review
  • Education Secretary John Swinney announces review, but defends differences between schools saying that the curriculum was designed to “give flexibility”
  • University of Stirling study found that the curriculum had narrowed for S4’s in recent years, with a growing inequality in subject choice by area deprivation since CfE was introduced

A NEW review into the senior phase of secondary school education must examine why there are growing inequalities in curriculum choice between more and less deprived areas, experts have argued.

Education Secretary John Swinney announced a review into the senior phase of secondary school education on Monday [16 September], after a Scottish Parliament committee published a damning report on the narrowing of subjects being taken by pupils in S4 and S5.

The Education and Skills Committee, which called for Swinney to establish the Review, found that “substantial work must be undertaken by the Scottish Government to develop a better understanding of how subject choices operate in practice and to address the unintended consequences emanating from the change in curriculum”.

The Committee had “serious concerns that there is a lack of clarity within the Scottish education system about who has overall responsibility for curricular structure and subject availability in Scottish secondary schools under the Curriculum for Excellence.”

A 2018 study on the narrowing of the curriculum from Mark Priestley and Dr Marina Shapira of the Stirling Network for Curriculum Studies at the University of Stirling found that for S4’s “on average, the number of subject choices decreased from 7.3 in 2011-2013 to 5.3 in 2014-2017.”

READ MORE: Hilary Long: Children are unhappy – we need a wellbeing curriculum for schools

The narrowing has been greater in areas of high deprivation, and “as a result, in 2017 the number of subject entries per student become more differentiated by the area’s level of multiple deprivation than it was in 2011.”

A “main finding from our study is that after 2013 the configuration of subject entries and the number of subject choices become more differentiated by characteristics of school, that it was prior to the introduction of new qualifications under the CfE,” the report added. 

The largest decrease was in Modern Languages with a small decrease in the Arts, while entries to Sciences and English & Maths rose. No narrowing of the curriculum was identified in S5.

Gary Walsh, PhD Researcher at the University of Glasgow and Curriculum for Equity website editor, told CommonSpace the inequalities within subject choice was “against the principle of social justice”.

“Evidence suggests that attainment is improving but the curriculum is narrowing for some pupils, which means there are less subjects available for them to study,” Walsh said. “This seems to be the case particularly in areas of the country where poverty is more prevalent. The reasons for this are not yet clear but obviously these pupils should not be losing out. This goes against the principle of social justice which is supposed to be driving our education system.”

READ MORE: Gabrielle Allison: I’ve just finished ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ – I don’t think it helped me

Walsh added that another review would only be worthwhile if the current “instrumental economic view of education” is up for debate.

“An independent review may help to determine what is going on in relation to subject choices. However, we have already had a series of education reforms, consultations, the introduction of new initiatives such as standardised testing, a revamp of Education Scotland and other organisations and more recently a ‘refresh’ of the CfE narrative. Will yet another review help? This remains to be seen,” Walsh stated.

“The Scottish Government insists that more pupils than ever are achieving ‘positive destinations’ after school, but this is a myopic view of the purposes of education. It is conceivable that this narrow vision is contributing to the narrowing curriculum. Instead of being driven by an instrumental economic view of education, we need to remind ourselves of what education is actually for in the first place. That would be a review worth having.”

The Committee’s report also found problems with the “consistency and equity” of the curriculum in relation to the Scottish Government’s “empowerment” agenda in recent years, which has give more control to headteachers.

“Empowerment of school leaders and decision-making at the individual school level has many positive attributes, but there can also be negative consequences, such as a lack of consistency and equity in provision between schools,” the report found.

READ MORE: Analysis: With teachers and pupils suffering mental ill-health, its time for a total school re-think

“It should be acknowledged that ‘empowerment’ during a period of teacher shortage in some areas and subjects can in practice mean that schools are required to take decisions to manage shortages, and this can impact on a school’s ability to provide the range of subjects and curricular models best suited to their communities. Strategic oversight and support from the Government, its agencies and local authorities is paramount during such periods.”

John Swinney defended the de-centralisation of the curriculum, telling Good Morning Scotland: “The curriculum was designed to give flexibility to schools to design a curriculum that met the needs of their learners.

“That will mean inevitably we will not have the same approach taken in every school in our country. I don’t believe we should have.”

The report also found a “continuing confusion” about the role of Education Scotland, and was “deeply concerned” about the “evident disconnect between Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority”.

James McEnaney, researcher and writer on Scottish education, said that the findings of the Education Committee were not a surprise.

READ MORE: James McEnaney: The uncomfortable reality – Education is yet to reflect the needs of youngsters

McEnaney stated: ”I don’t think there is anything in the committee report that will surprise people working in education right now. There have been some serious problems with the switch to the new approach to senior phase, with issues like multi-qualification teaching and a squeeze on some subjects having been highlighted by teachers for several years. Ironically, this is now likely to end up resulting in the return of greater national standardisation of the structure of senior phase in secondary schools.

“The government is right to accept the recommendation for a full-scale review but the serious – and well-deserved – criticisms of Education Scotland and the SQA can’t be brushed under the carpet. Both organisations have been guilty of serious failings over the years and some proper scrutiny of their complicity in the problems currently faced by schools is long overdue. Any sort of systemic change brings challenges but, as the committee report makes clear, these have been exacerbated by the shortcomings of the agencies charged with overseeing Scottish education.

“Ultimately, however, this will come down to a simple choice: do we really want to pursue the new approach built into CfE or do people simply want the old system, with which they are inevitably more comfortable, restored?”

The report also found that the problem was not just one of SQA qualifications – it was also about the need for a wider range of experiences available to pupils in the senior phase.

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan cautioned against radical changes to the curriculum, stating: “The EIS submission made clear that the senior phase has yet to achieve all of its aims but as far as teachers are concerned a period of stability and consolidation, especially around qualification changes, is now essential.”

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government