Subject Choices in School An Education and Skills Committee quick read

In Spring 2019 the Scottish Parliament's Education & Skills Committee conducted an inquiry into subject choices, specifically the extent and basis for any narrowing of availability of subject choices in secondary schools. This follows on from previous work undertaken by the Committee in 2017 and September 2018.

How did the Committee gather views and opinions?

The Committee issued a call for views which ran from 4th February to the 4th March as well as issuing short surveys aimed at Head Teachers, Teachers, Parents and Young People.

The Parliament's Community Outreach Team conducted three workshops with young people looking at their experience of Subject Choice in schools and a similar workshop was run at the Scottish Youth Parliament's sitting in Dalkeith. Members of the Committee also held focus groups with Teachers and Parents in Dunfermline.

The Committee took evidence from panels of witnesses over seven Committee meetings in April and May 2019. You can watch all seven Committee meetings on the Committee's YouTube Channel

The Committee would like to send a huge thank you to everyone who shared their views and experiences to help inform this inquiry

Some Background

The “Senior Phase” relates to S4-S6. This was the last element of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) to be implemented. This was a change in secondary school structure from previously where pupils studied in three two-year groupings (2+2+2) with Standard grades being studied in S3-S4 and Highers or Advanced Highers in S5-S6. The new structure of 3+3 sees pupils study Broad General Education in S1-S3 and then National Courses plus Highers and Advanced Highers over S4-S6.

How qualifications relate to each other according to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF)

Throughout the inquiry, some witnesses highlighted the flexibility of the structure of the Senior Phase as one of its strengths and that the new curriculum was better suited to a wider group of pupils. Others felt that the structure of the Senior Phase hadn’t really changed all that much.

The Committee supports the ethos and principles which underpin the Curriculum for Excellence but believes that the way the Senior Phase has been implemented has resulted in some unintended consequences.

The Committee recommends the Scottish Government commissions some independent research into different curricular models. This research should consider the experiences of pupils, parents and carers, and teachers to supplement the data.

Accountability and Data

The Committee was keen to understand where accountability lay for the performance of the Curriculum for Excellence. The evidence gathered led them to conclude that the decision-making system in Scottish education confuses the implementation of policy.

While ultimate accountability for the performance of Scottish education rests with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, the Scottish Government should clarify the respective roles of Education Scotland, the SQA, and local authorities in supporting schools in delivering the Curriculum for Excellence, and how the contributions of each of these levels of the system are assessed and improved

The purpose of S3

Regardless of the structure of the curriculum chosen by a particular school, an issue which featured strongly in evidence was how S3 was used to prepare pupils for the Senior Phase. In the previous structure, S3 was the first year pupils would undertake preparation for qualifications, but the 3+3 model means that S3 has now become the final year of pupils' broad general education before specialising in S4 and beyond.

Some evidence suggested that in some schools, time is taken in S3 to undertake some preparation for National examinations in S4 whereas others reported that S3 was seen as "wasting time" ahead of beginning qualifications in S4.

The Committee notes that teachers and schools have worked hard to reduce the lack of coherence between the broad general education and the Senior Phase. However, the Committee notes that this lack of coherence was the result of problems during the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence, and that issues still remain in ensuring a better transition from S3 to S4

Review of the Senior Phase

The Committee believes that the time is right for an independent review of the Senior Phase, which would be separate from the proposed research recommended by the Committee elsewhere in this report

National 4

The National 4 qualification is the equivalent of the previous Standard Grade General qualification, but does not have an external examination. The Committee heard evidence that the lack of an exam “adds to the feeling of being devalued by less able pupils” and the practice of “dropping” pupils from National 5 to National 4 following prelim results, stigmatised those children taking National 4.

For young people who choose to go to college having achieved at National 4 level, it is unclear how well the qualification prepares them to complete their courses in college.

The Committee recommends that as part of the review of Senior Phase, the Scottish Government works with the Scottish Funding Council to identify the qualifications and destinations of young people who entered Further Education having achieved at National 4 level while at school.

Senior Phase Choices

Subject numbers in S4

The early part of the Committee’s inquiry focussed on the number of subjects studied in S4. Before the introduction of the new structure, pupils were able to study an average of eight subjects across S3 and S4. Now the average is six or seven in one year in S4.

The Committee believes it is evident that there has been a reduction in the number of subjects available to pupils in S4 in most schools since the introduction of the Senior Phase and that this is, at least in part, due to the change in structure.

The Committee acknowledges that a Broad General Education now exists until the end of S3 and that a wider range of subjects and alternative pathways now exist but there are still instances where pupils are unable to choose every subject they wish to study.

Deprivation and Rurality

Another area of debate was the effect of deprivation on the educational experience and subject choices of school pupils.

While there is cross party support for closing the poverty-related attainment gap it is concerning that recent academic research has found that secondary schools in more deprived areas have a more restricted range of subjects available for study, and that the subjects that are available tend to be subjects perceived as being less academic and/or more vocational.

The Committee urges the Scottish Government and Education Scotland to investigate this and to confirm where accountability at a national level for tackling it lies. Whoever is found to be accountable should then work with schools and local authorities to ensure that this issue is tackled effectively.

The Committee would also like alternatives like consortium arrangements (where pupils learn subjects at other schools or colleges) and digital solutions to be explored further.

The Impact on particular subjects

A lot of the evidence the Committee received, especially from teachers, suggested that certain subjects were being particularly disadvantaged by the new curriculum. The Committee concluded that modern languages in particular, as well as Geography and STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) were facing reduced participation.

The Committee recommends that the Scottish Government considers as a matter of urgency how Gaelic uptake can be supported to prevent the sharp drop in the numbers of pupils learning Gaelic in schools from getting worse.

The Committee would like to see the Scottish Government and Education Scotland look in to participation rates in all subjects since the introduction of the Senior Phase.

How have schools responded to the Curriculum?


The Committee didn’t only focus on subject choices but also on how schools are supported to deliver these subjects. They concluded that a one size fits all approach across a local authority did not empower schools to shape the curriculum to fit their pupils’ needs and asks COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) to provide information on how local authorities who do use such models consult with schools and parents and carers to ensure this works for all.

Special consideration should be made for young people who move between schools with significantly different structures and would like the Scottish Government to commission research on how those children’s outcomes are affected.

Multi-Level Teaching

A key issue that emerged during the inquiry was the issue of multi-level teaching where pupils within a single class are studying towards different levels of qualification in the same subject. The Committee is concerned at the evidence it received which suggests an increase in the use of multi-level teaching

While the Committee accepted that there may be sound reasons for multi-level teaching it believes that it should not be used in response to resourcing issues. In order to assist schools and to provide some rationale for using multi-level teaching the Committee recommends that Education Scotland and the SQA work together to identify which subjects could be compatible with it.

Teacher Numbers

The issue of staffing was frequently referred to by the people who gave evidence to the Committee. One of the reasons that teacher numbers can affect subject choice is that, where schools don’t have adequate staffing levels, teachers will be directed to Senior Phase classes, which affects those in S1-S3.

While it is clear that staffing should remain a matter for local authorities to decide, the Committee was concerned by Education Scotland’s approach to using data on teacher numbers. The Committee recommends that Education Scotland works with the Scottish Government and COSLA to devise an appropriate method of using the data gathered by the Scottish Government and local authorities. This will allow for a better understanding of where issues lie with recruitment and retention of teachers.

The Committee wa also concerned that some schools were resorting to support from businesses and employers to cover gaps in teaching provision.

Consortium Arrangements

Many schools use arrangements that allow pupils to travel to other schools to undertake qualifications while remaining registered at their “home” school. 97% of schools who responded to the Headteacher survey also reported collaborating with colleges to offer courses.

The Committee recognises the efforts being made by schools and local authorities to align timetables, which can allow pupils to undertake courses at colleges or other schools but is concerned that there can be barriers which prevent pupils from accessing courses at their closest college if that college is in a different local authority area.

The Committee also invites a response from COSLA which sets out how local authorities consider the impact of consortium arrangements on pupils.

Informing Parents and Carers

Another area considered extensively was how parents and carers were informed about subject choices. The volume of responses the Committee received from parents and carers suggests there is strong feeling on this issue.

The Committee encourages all schools and local authorities to consider whether the information they provide is up-to-date, clearly written, and is provided in a timely manner to allow parents and carers to digest and discuss with their children before they make their subject choices.

The Committee also recommends that the Scottish Government supports COSLA and local authorities in a national campaign, aimed at parents and carers and employers, to explain the new system.

Thanks again to everyone who shared their views and experiences. Keep up to date with news and opportunities to get involved by following the Committee on Twitter.

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