Scottish curriculum narrows and attainment drops under new regime

Least able pupils are worst hit, research finds

The number of qualifications being pursued by Scottish pupils – particularly those of lower ability – has dropped sharply since the new curriculum and qualifications were introduced, as has attainment, new research shows.

The situation for modern languages was “near critical” because of the drop in pupils enrolling for these subjects in S4, according to Dr Jim Scott from the University of Dundee.

Overall since the new qualifications were introduced in 2014, enrolment at Scottish qualifications levels three to five has dropped by 17 per cent and the number of pupils passing at these levels has dropped by 24 per cent, he found. (Level three is the equivalent to the old Foundation Standard grade or the new National 3 qualification; level five is equivalent to the old Credit Standard grade or the new National 5 qualification.)

The least able pupils were most badly affected, compounding “Scotland’s existing problems of social justice and equality of opportunity”, Dr Scott said.

“The disappearance of 92,672 level three-five enrolments, alongside 120,035 Grade A-C passes at these levels, should not be considered appropriate – or normal – losses,” he added.

Much of the change was down to the different ways in which schools now organised their curricula, with some authorities limiting pupils to just five or six courses in S4, he said, whereas in the past they would have been able to take seven or eight subjects.

The likes of modern languages had “suffered disproportionately” as a result of this narrowing of the curriculum, which he found existed in at least 170 of Scotland’s 350 secondaries.

‘Unintended consequence’

The drop in courses being undertaken in S4 was “an unintended consequence” of Curriculum for Excellence, Dr Scott believes. However, he said: “There is no identifiable evidence of governmental acknowledgement of the problem or of remedial action.”

He called for all pupils to have the chance to study seven or eight courses in S4. He also called for an end to the three-year broad general education in secondary, and a return to a two year pre-qualifications period.

His paper, The Governance of Curriculum for Excellence in Scottish Secondary Schools: structural divergence, curricular distortion and reduced attainment submission, was submitted to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s CfE team.

However, the OECD review concentrated on the broad general education up to S3 and did not look at the senior phase.

Scottish Labour opportunity spokesperson Iain Gray said: “One of the key strengths of the Scottish education system has always been the breadth of its curriculum. After a decade of the SNP government in charge of our schools we are seeing Scottish education narrowing, attainment falling and some subjects are at risk of disappearing altogether.

“We warned the SNP about these problems months ago and they dismissed our evidence. Today we see that those trends have continued into the second year of the new exams.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “A record proportion of school-leavers are securing jobs, training or continued education, while the gap between our most and least deprived school-leavers achieving at least one Higher has reduced considerably since 2007. The figures contained in this report do not fully recognise school-leavers’ skills and qualifications, which are a far more important, meaningful measure of performance.”

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