That brings me on to the other substantive point that I want to make. The focus on the breadth of learning throughout primary school and the first years of secondary school ensures that learners have a solid foundation on which to enter the senior phase of school. I will highlight three particular features of the senior phase that are relevant to this debate.
First, the period from S4 to S6 is designed as a three-year phase of learning in which the focus is on a learner’s total achievements by the end of that period rather than on individual, year-on-year attainment. That addresses directly the compartmentalisation point that Liz Smith makes about S4.
The second objective of the reform was to maximise the richness of the learning throughout the senior phase, focusing on the best way to allow learners to achieve the highest possible level of attainment. That approach recognises that, although qualifications are undoubtedly important in allowing young people to pursue their aspirations, there is little value in simply accumulating qualifications at lower levels for their own sake.
If Mr Mundell will forgive me, I will not take an intervention. I have quite a lot of ground to cover.
That may well mean that learners take fewer subjects in S4 than under the previous system, where the focus was on gaining as many standard grades or O levels as possible, but, far from that being an unintended consequence, it was an entirely deliberate outcome of redesigning the senior phase.
In the evidence that Terry Lanagan gave to the Education and Skills Committee in January 2017, many points were made about how the curriculum had been structured to reflect the fact that young people were being encouraged to engage in deeper learning that would enable them to fulfil their potential.
That will be a judgment that is arrived at in individual schools on the basis of the curriculum model that they want to take forward, and that is the policy position that I bring to this debate. I believe that schools should be able to undertake the curriculum model design that best meets the needs of learners within their individual schools, recognising the strategic guidance that has been given to the education system that the S4 to S6 experience must be viewed as a three-year experience and not compartmentalised into individual annual components, which is what the Conservatives would seek to get us to do.
Not necessarily, because young people will have established stronger foundations in a higher and more demanding broad general education than would have been the case under the previous arrangements.
The third feature is the determination not to focus solely on traditional attainment but to recognise the range of other experiences and skills that young people need to make a success of their lives in a fast-changing world. That approach has been embedded further by the successful implementation of the developing Scotland’s young workforce programme.
The cabinet secretary suggested that decisions about course choice are available on a school-by-school basis, but Dundee City Council’s curriculum guidelines say that pupils can study a maximum of six subjects at national 4 and 5. That is for the whole local authority. Does he accept that these policies are being made on a local authority basis and not on an individual school basis, as he said?
That gets us to the nub of the reform agenda that I am interested in taking forward. I am glad that Ms Marra is a supporter of that agenda. I believe that these decisions should be taken at school level, enabling schools to put in place the curriculum that meets the needs of individual young people.
The product of the approach that we have taken is that we have seen a significant increase in the positive destinations that are being achieved by young people. That is the point that the First Minister made at First Minister’s question time last week. It has resulted in an increase in the number of higher passes, exceeding 150,000 for each of the past three years, recognising the significance and value of that qualification. It has also resulted in nearly 60,000 skill-based awards and achievements, which recognise the learning that has been undertaken by young people and identify its value in the Scottish credit and qualifications framework and the further destinations that young people move on to.
I want to reflect the fact that the models for the delivery of education in Scotland are more diverse today than they were when we were talking about O grades and standard grades. We now have, for the advanced higher, hosting arrangements that involve Glasgow Caledonian University, the virtual school network in Highland Council and the e-sgoil in the Western Isles, which are enabling a much broader range of advanced highers to be available to a broader range of young people in different educational settings.
In this debate, there will be a lot of information and discussion about what are the right choices to make. I believe that the fundamental choices made in constructing curriculum for excellence, which identified two three-year phases in the secondary sector and enabled young people and our educationalists to focus on the outcomes that they achieved, are exactly the right approaches to take and are the foundations for the learner journey work that the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Sciences will talk about in her conclusion in the debate, and they will serve the young people of Scotland very well in the foreseeable future.
I move amendment S5M-12358.4, to insert at end:
“; recognises that the most significant measure of achievement is when pupils leave school after the three-year senior phase as this defines pupils’ success in accessing work, training or education; congratulates pupils and students across Scotland who have collectively achieved more than 150,000 Higher passes for the third year in a row, including a 4% increase since 2013; welcomes the fact that 93.7% of 2016-17 senior phase school leavers were in a positive initial destination; further welcomes the fact that the proportion of young people in the most deprived areas getting one or more qualifications at SCQF levels 4, 5 and 6 is increasing faster than those in the least deprived areas; agrees that all schools and local authorities across Scotland should be innovative in providing greater choices for young people through creative timetabling and partnership approaches with nearby schools and other partners, such as the Advanced Higher hub at Glasgow Caledonian University, the Virtual School network in The Highland Council and the e-sgoil that has been established in the Western Isles, and further agrees that further work is needed to understand what is on offer to pupils and students, including mapping the availability of Advanced Higher provision across Scotland in line with the recommendation of
The 15-24 Learner Journey Review.”
Few decisions are more important to any young person at school than those that they make about subject choices. What they decide defines their future career. That is why the Scottish Conservatives, like many parents, teachers and young people across Scotland, have become increasingly concerned about the evidence that points to the fact that the range of choices at secondary 4 level in many schools is now restricted. That impacts most on S4 and S5 pupils who will leave school with only national 4 or national 5 qualifications, but it also impacts on the choice opportunities that young people have in higher and advanced higher courses in S5 and S6, with the obvious implications for further entry later on.
I want to set out the evidence, place that evidence in the context of what was supposed to happen in curriculum for excellence, and put on the table proposals on what has to happen to address the problem. In setting out the evidence, I will draw on the work of Professor Jim Scott, the evidence that was presented to the Education and Skills Committee in 2016-17 by teachers, local authorities and the education agencies, the work of Glasgow Caledonian University and Reform Scotland, the Scottish Government’s own research in its annual statistical reports, and various articles in the media over the past two years. All of them without exception point to the increasing movement from eight to six subjects in S4. In 2013, 28 per cent of schools had moved to six subjects; in 2016, the figure was 47 per cent. Professor Scott’s latest research shows that the figure is now 57 per cent.
Professor Scott’s evidence goes on to show that there has been a corresponding decline in S4 enrolments and S4 attainment in Scottish Qualifications Authority levels 3 to 5. He acknowledges that the SQA has made 3,750 more awards per year as a result of diversifying the type of certificate course available, but he points to the loss of no fewer than 143,735 annual course passes as a result of the decline in choice from eight to six subjects.
The real issue is for S4 pupils who are entered for national 4 and national 5 courses and who want to leave school at the end of fourth year or fifth year, because they will leave school with fewer qualifications than would otherwise have been the case.
To place all that in context, there is a very important debate to be had about the delivery of curriculum for excellence. There was the relatively powerful argument that schools should be more free to develop their own curriculum so that it best suited the needs of their pupils, and there was the argument that learning in depth is more important than learning in breadth, and that it is not fair to contrast what is happening now with curriculum for excellence with what went before. I can accept some of those arguments, but I cannot accept—nor can young people and parents accept—what has happened in practice, perhaps with unintended consequences. There has been the narrowing of subject choice not just in S4 but in S5 and S6, which has had a particularly marked effect on many young people who are attending schools in disadvantaged communities. We should all be concerned about that with respect to widening access.
In March 2017, Glasgow Caledonian University’s research concluded that
“many young people struggle to get their preferred choice in S5 and S6” and that many young people do not get the opportunity to take a higher course across a two-year period, which gives better scope for articulation.
Let me deal with the arguments that I am sure that the Scottish Government will put to us. The line that the First Minister has given us when she has been challenged on the issue is that more young people than ever before are achieving higher and advanced higher passes. No one is disputing that, and that is good, but that must not become a quantitative argument. If we drill down, we see that there are many different perspectives that tell us that, in qualitative terms, that is not quite the picture.
For example, there has been a very significant squeeze on modern languages—a key skill that most employers value very highly—and there is also evidence that there is a squeeze on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which are also key skills that are highly valued by employers. The fall in subject choice from eight to six subjects inevitably makes it more difficult for young people to have the best possible combinations, a point noted by Universities Scotland when it provided its evidence to the Education and Skills Committee last year.
Secondly, we are told that we must not look at the individual years but look at the senior phase as a three-year progression. I could accept that in theory, but, in practice, the narrowing of subject choice in S4 is beginning to have a similar effect on S5 and S6. If there was a properly thought-out progression, we would not see the reluctance to offer young people the chance to sit highers across two academic years, we would not see the two-term dash to higher and we would not see the very serious situation affecting the advanced higher. I raise the point about the advanced higher not just because it is seen as Scotland’s most prestigious exam, is envied by many educationalists in other jurisdictions and is more in tune with the founding principles of curriculum for excellence than any other exam, but because it draws into question the purpose of the S6 year. How ironic is it that the Russell Group of universities south of the border are stronger advocates of the advanced higher than many people in Scotland?
On the Conservatives’ side of the chamber, we believe that that is a very important question to answer, not least because more pupils want to stay on at school until they are 18 and therefore ought to be able to access advanced higher as they want. However, that is not the case just now, most especially in disadvantaged communities. As the widening access debate progresses, more and more people believe that the focus of that policy has to be on schools, including the early years, and not so much on artificial targets within colleges and universities. Widening the availability of advanced higher must surely be part of the focus, so that we do not end up with statistics that show that just two secondary schools in disadvantaged areas offer more than 12 advanced highers whereas 27 per cent of schools in more affluent areas do that. I know that there are some successful developments in hubs arranged by the universities of Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen and that they are all working to make advanced highers more available, but that does not help many young people in Scotland, particularly those who are unable to travel to the hubs.
So, what must be done? First, it is imperative that we address the S1 to S4 curriculum. We have ended up with no clear strategy or vision for the middle years, which means that, when it comes to S4, we have to condition young people to have far fewer subjects—we have lost that articulation with the early years. A key part of the situation is teacher numbers. We cannot hope to offer effective subject choice if we have 3,400 fewer teachers in the system than we did when the Scottish National Party came to power, nor can we hope to improve things if there is a serious shortage in core subjects such as maths and an increasing trend for experienced teachers to leave the profession.
We are addressing in the debate a hugely significant and important issue for many children across Scotland, because they are not getting a fair choice at the moment; hence the reason I move the motion in my name.
That the Parliament notes with concern evidence that shows that, for a substantial number of schools across Scotland, subject choice for S4 pupils has been reduced; believes that this is an unintended consequence of the current structure of Curriculum for Excellence, which also has implications for subject choice in S5 and S6; further believes that this situation is exacerbated by teacher shortages in key subjects, and calls for the Scottish Government to work with local authorities to urgently ensure that all schools adhere to the commitment to provide young people and parents with full details about subject choice options.
I welcome this debate and I want to be as helpful as I can in discussing the substantive issues that Liz Smith raises
. The reason for that is that this whole debate was a key focus of the national debate that informed the development of curriculum for excellence, with the decisions that were endorsed across the education and skills system and very widely supported within this Parliament chamber.
One of the central aspects of the reform of curriculum for excellence was the extension of the broad general education to the end of S3, which is a point that I felt was not given justice in the speech that Liz Smith just made. The extension of the broad general education to the end of S3 was a fundamental feature of the design of the new curriculum. Learners now study a wider range of subjects to a higher level and with a greater degree of learning than they did under the previous curriculum, and we cannot just skate past that.
The benchmarks that were signed off by the chief inspector in 2016, which were also endorsed by the chief examiner of qualifications at the Scottish Qualifications Authority, provide the clarity about and evidence of the higher standards that are expected at each level of curriculum for excellence, and particularly at the conclusion of the broad general education at the conclusion of S3.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I had not forgotten, and I rise to move the amendment in my name.
This is an important issue, but it is not a new one. The narrowing of the curriculum and the fall in attainment in S4 was raised by Kezia Dugdale in May 2015 at First Minister’s questions and again in June of the same year. The evidence, which has been meticulously gathered from official sources and collated and analysed by Jim Scott, existed even then. However, the First Minister chose not to listen. She tried to suggest that Professor Scott did not know the difference between enrolments and pupil numbers. She wrote the whole thing off as “constant SNP bashing.” However, it was not, and three years on, the evidence has mounted on narrowing of the curriculum in our schools.
The number of schools allowing pupils to study more than six subjects in S4 has fallen to 43 per cent, and only 11 per cent now allow eight subjects. The numbers are stark, but so are the consequences: that narrowing of the curriculum is pushing some subjects out of schools altogether. Nothing will convince me that that was an intended consequence of the great education debate or of curriculum for excellence.
As Liz Smith said, modern languages are being particularly badly affected. It is no coincidence that last year the number of young people who gained a language qualification was 50 per cent lower than the number who did so in 2007. Gaelic, to which all of us in Parliament committed our support only a couple of weeks ago, was one of the subjects that Professor Scott identified as being at risk years ago.
This time, the education secretary has countered with an amendment of positive statistics that are true, but which hide, rather than contradict, the problem. High-achieving pupils who are going to do five or six highers will still do five or six highers; the point is that they will be choosing those highers from a narrower S4 base and their chances of doing three sciences or two modern languages are being undermined, or even denied in some schools, which has a knock-on effect on university course choice.
As for the rather contrived statistic in the Government amendment about the faster increase in
“the proportion of young people in the most deprived areas getting one or more qualifications at ... levels 4, 5 and 6”,
it is true, but it is driven largely by the fact that more pupils at the wealthier end move on to level 7 qualifications.
As has been pointed out, the number of exam passes by S4 pupils has fallen by 140,000 since the new exams were introduced. The number of national 5 entries per learner has declined by 20 per cent, and the pass rate for national 5 has fallen from 91.3 per cent in 2013 to 79.5 per cent. Those who leave school with only national 4 and 5 qualifications can choose and sit fewer subjects, and they are achieving fewer passes.
The very SQA tables from which Mr Swinney’s figure is derived show that since 2013 the percentage of pupils who leave school with no qualifications at all is rising, especially in the lower-income deciles. It is not a big rise, but it is the reversal of a 50-year historical trend. Comprehensive schools, awards for all and standard grades turned a school system that had left 70 per cent of leavers with nothing into one of which we could be proud, and in which every pupil’s achievement was recognised. Those achievements matter. S4 leavers deserve the best from our schools, just as the high flyers with the higher pass rates do.
No one is arguing that there is a conspiracy. However, there are unintended consequences of the new exams coupled with teacher shortages and tight budgets, and those consequences are impacting on children who are at the wrong side of the attainment gap. The education secretary simply must face up to that.
Parents do not understand what is going on: they do not understand why their children’s choices are so constrained and they do not understand why choice depends so heavily on the school that their child attends. My constituency has few high schools—five—but some of those schools offer six subjects at S4, some offer seven and some offer eight.
Parents feel that pupils from more affluent communities are being offered more choice and more chances, which can only exacerbate the attainment gap. It is not enough for the Government simply to accept the motion; we must hear what it will do to fix the problem.
I move amendment S5M-12358.1, to insert at end:
“; recognises that there remains a stubborn attainment gap between pupils from the most and least deprived families; notes concerns that the narrowing of curricular choice may be greater in schools in the most deprived areas, and calls for action on this issue and in closing the attainment gap.”
The need to ensure that Scotland’s schools provide an inclusive learning environment that enables all young people to excel is an obvious point of consensus, and subject choice cuts to the heart of the issue. How can we expect young people from more deprived communities in particular to succeed if they are not given the same opportunity as other pupils to choose the subjects that they want or need to do?
Of course, attainment will be lower if pupils are restricted to subjects in which they have less interest. Restricted choice can have a lifelong impact, whether we are talking about missed opportunities to develop an interest from an early age or knock-on effects on careers and future study choices.
A benefit of the Scottish education system is meant to be that our senior phase provides for a wide education and does not shoehorn pupils into doing three subjects, as happens with A levels down south. However, if subject choice is restricted, a diverse education is not being offered and young people are not being given the same opportunities to develop their own interests.
If we are to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, we must ensure that all pupils have a good choice of subjects at all levels, including national 4 and 5, higher and advanced higher. However, we are not doing that. In Glasgow, for example, pupils from the most deprived communities are, on average, offered six fewer higher subjects than pupils from the least deprived communities are offered. That is not just an immediate inequality; it has profound long-term effects.
Some parts of Scotland face far greater difficulties when it comes to subject choice. Across our rural and island communities it is simply not possible for individual schools to have in the building the same breadth of expertise as a school in a more densely populated area. That should not prevent the full breadth of subjects being offered to young people in rural and island communities, but the reality is that it does.
Distance learning through the internet and teleconferencing can enable pupils to learn subjects that are not physically available in their schools. Such options are already used across Scotland, though not consistently and with unnecessary barriers remaining. For example, different approaches to timetabling in local authorities can create difficulties.
We need to grapple with the difference between granting autonomy to individual schools and headteachers and the co-ordination that is required, particularly across rural communities. Such barriers need to be addressed.
However, for the most part, it is teacher shortages that have had a severe impact on subject choice in particular communities and with particular subjects. We have debated the causes of those shortages on a number of occasions, including through the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry process. We know that issues of workload, conditions and pay have had major impacts on recruitment and retention, especially in subject areas in which people with the relevant qualifications have clear alternative employment opportunities in the private sector.
We know that austerity cuts are at the core of much of what is happening. Real-terms spending on education has dropped by £335 million since 2007—a drop of about 6.5 per cent. Many local councils sought to protect education spending after their budgets were squeezed, but that quickly became close to impossible when the squeeze started more than a decade ago.
The Scottish Government likes to highlight the attainment challenge fund and the pupil equity fund as investments in education. Although all new money going into education is welcome—as we discussed with the cabinet secretary this morning—in many cases the money is being used simply to plug gaps that have been left by core budget cuts. Funding is annual and there are the restrictions on how it is spent, so it is obviously not solving the issue of subject choice when restrictions are caused by staffing shortages. Funding needs to go to core council education budgets so that we can begin to resolve the problems with subject choice restrictions.
We can see the impact of the past decade’s budget decisions on teachers. There are 3,500 fewer teachers today than there were in 2007. That is not difficult to understand when we realise that teachers’ wages are 20 per cent lower in real terms than they were 10 years ago. All the fast-track schemes that we can think of will not solve that problem: a genuinely restorative pay rise is required. The Educational Institute of Scotland has launched its campaign for a restorative rise, starting at 10 per cent this year. I sincerely hope that the Government takes that pay claim seriously in negotiations. Although it would not solve all the problems that affect subject choice, as Liz Smith and Iain Gray laid out, it would go a long way towards addressing some of the major underlying issues.
The debate that Liz Smith has brought is about subject choice. In some ways, I speak more as a father than I do as an MSP on the issue, because my oldest children have been through that subject choice.
I think that the matter is actually very simple. It is not the Government’s fault—Liz Smith and Iain Gray were quite right about that. The Government should take the debate as a sign that we are all looking for a more considered way forward. Those of us who have sat through the Education and Skills Committee’s evidence sessions in the past two or three years—in fairness to John Swinney, he is very well aware of this—have been very concerned about how curriculum for excellence has been implemented.
As Iain Gray rightly highlighted, there have been unintended consequences, many of which result from less-than-perfect implementation, not least by Education Scotland. If there is one major problem that I have with the Government on the issue, it is that we have rewarded the body that is responsible for implementation of curriculum for excellence—Education Scotland—with more powers, rather than asking fundamental questions about its role. That has always seemed strange to me. Education Scotland’s role has been cited by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, among others—which, to be fair, John Swinney has been very keen to point out to us. I hope that the Government will take the debate in the spirit of seeking to find solutions to the narrowing of subject choice.
Here is why it matters: a person who in S4 is given a choice of only six subjects—as is all too prevalent, according to figures that members across the chamber have mentioned—simply does not have, by definition, as much choice at higher level, in S5. That matters: I have yet to find a university—like it or lump it—that does not want my son, my daughter or any Scottish pupil to achieve their highers in one sitting. I entirely take John Swinney’s point about the senior phase, but rightly or wrongly, that is not the reality of how our higher education sector approaches its assessment of candidates for university. It is happening today. I cannot be the only member who pushed the trolley down the supermarket aisle this weekend—as I did at home in Lerwick—and got it in the ear from a couple of parents about a university not taking their son because he had not got what he needed to get. Those parents believe that the reasons for that are to do with narrowing of choice.
I should quickly add that Anderson high school in Lerwick has offered seven subjects. When Education Scotland was pushing the senior phase, Anderson high school was told—I well remember seeing the emails about this—that it should offer only six subjects, but the headteacher and her promoted team made it very clear that their school strongly believed in offering seven subjects and were going to continue to do so. In my view, that was the right thing to do.
I consider that the central element of the subject choice
argument is important and powerful. If the university sector were to change its approach to one in which it accepts the Government’s arguments as made by the cabinet secretary this afternoon—that it should consider the results across the piece of the senior phase—we would be having a different discussion, but that is not the reality, so the unintended consequence that has been described must be addressed. Given that, I hope that the Government considers Dr Jim Scott’s evidence.
It is also interesting to note that the Scottish Parliament information centre’s briefing says that the Government accepts that it does not have its own figures in this area. Indeed, this morning, when I asked what information is held, I was told that no data on school curricular models is available, which means that there is no data on subject availability. Therefore, Dr Scott deserves credit for bringing the information into the public domain and for giving the Government a reason for addressing the issue that Liz Smith has brought before us this afternoon.
I entirely agree with the cabinet secretary’s remarks on the developing the young workforce strategy. I merely ask him to look anew at ensuring wider accreditation of non-formal education, youth awards and courses, which could help the very people whom we need to deal with in closing the education attainment gap.
First, I welcome Liz Smith’s remarks. She outlined in great detail why this debate is an important one.
On these benches, we have sought answers from the Scottish Government over the past week on a significant change in our schools: the narrowing of subject choice. We were told that curriculum for excellence would
“provide more choices and more chances” for young people. We were assured that it would not mean a restriction in subject choice, but that choice has been restricted.
The points that appear in our motion today were put to the First Minister last Thursday, when she said:
“What matters is the qualifications that pupils leave school with, not just the subjects that they study in S4.”—[
, 17 May 2018; c 11.]
We cannot be alone in having concerns about the complacency in that answer. Ruth Davidson asked about apples but was told that the important thing was oranges. Subject choice, it seems, does not matter much. However, when we have leading educationists telling us that social inequalities in entry to higher education in Scotland are
“mostly explained by subject choice”,
and when we have a range of experts in the field of education telling us of the many problems that that is building up, it is time to take notice.
A traditional positive of the examinations structure was the supposed breadth of learning that it provides. Specialisation into subjects was gradual, giving school leavers a broader education and a greater choice as they moved into higher-level qualifications. The Deputy First Minister’s response has been to assert that the senior phase in secondary schools is a three-year progression, but that seems to take no notice of the impact on young people who take a different course.
Again, Liz Smith mentioned the squeeze on certain subjects, highlighting the concerns surrounding modern languages and STEM subjects. The SQA has reported that, between 2014 and 2017, the number of entrants fell by 6 per cent for higher French and by 12 per cent for higher German. Given the Government’s focus on language tuition, those numbers should be extremely concerning for ministers. The Government also focuses on STEM education, and we can see similar falls in the three main sciences and a significant decline in higher maths.
The qualifications gained at secondary level are important and valuable in themselves, but we should not turn a blind eye to the restrictiveness that the narrowing of subject choice places on young people who are looking towards their futures. For those contemplating a vocational route to enter a modern apprenticeship or otherwise move into work, restricted subject choice has an impact.
Since curriculum for excellence came into play, the SQA has revealed that the number of exam passes by pupils in S4 has fallen by 150,000.
On the new foundation apprenticeships that are on offer through schools, I have spoken previously in the chamber about the variability of framework choice across different parts of Scotland. In my region, there have been as few as two frameworks offered to young people. The Minister for Employability and Training, Jamie Hepburn, was helpfully clear in his intention to broaden out availability across local authorities.
Universities have noted that restricted subject choice has an impact on entry, and the University of Edinburgh has acknowledged that that is causing a damaging exclusion for young people from less advantaged backgrounds. There is a debate to be had on how specific the choices that are given to people relatively early in their secondary education should be. When young people are restricted to a smaller number of subjects, it continues to impact their choices later in their education.
The shortcomings in our education system always seem to have a disproportionate impact on the least advantaged young people. Curriculum for excellence was introduced with great fanfare by the Scottish Government and gained wide support on the basis of assurances and positions presented by ministers. Unfortunately, in the case of subject choice, it seems that those assurances have not been kept.
I rise to speak somewhat dismayed at some of the arguments that are being used in the chamber this afternoon. I served on the Education and Culture Committee in session 4 of the Parliament, and much of what has been discussed today was raised in evidence at that time. In 2012, in response to questions from Liz Smith, Ken Muir of Education Scotland said:
“The expectation is that youngsters will, in the main, experience a broad general education up to the end of S3—or, at least, will have an opportunity to receive the experiences and outcomes up to the third curriculum level.” —[
Official Report, Education and Culture Committee,
26 June 2012; c 1251.]
Also in 2012, Terry Lanagan of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland said:
“The new system is not about going for eight or nine qualifications in one year—it is a continuum of learning. Those are not just words: the new qualifications will—and do—build on experiences and outcomes in broad general education.”
No. Terry Lanagan said:
“The two plus two versus three plus three issue is a false dichotomy. Broad general education goes up to S3, but that does not mean that there is no choice before that stage—indeed, personalisation and choice are an entitlement in curriculum for excellence.”
He went on to say:
“One of the weaknesses in the current system is the well-known two-term dash to highers. The new system will allow the most able young people to start a two-year higher course at the beginning of S4. The other myth that has grown up is the idea that those schools that choose to present some or all pupils for eight qualifications in S4 are somehow doing better than those that adopt another model. The whole point about curriculum for excellence is to ensure that the needs of the individual young person are addressed, and that each young person gets the chance to attain qualifications at whichever point is appropriate for their needs.” —[
Official Report, Education and Culture Committee,
28 February 2012; c 795-6.]
That was the whole reason behind curriculum for excellence—making it pupil based and focused and allowing pupils to advance at an appropriate speed for their own needs.
“if, at the end of this, all we have done is replace the exams, and we have not changed the pedagogical approach in schools or what year youngsters make their future choices, we will not have achieved curriculum for excellence.” —[
Official Report, Education and Culture Committee
, 25 February 2014; c 3614.]
Curriculum for excellence is about giving teachers and individual schools the opportunity to design the courses and plans for young people to ensure the best outcomes for those young people. Larry Flanagan went on to talk about the 160 hours that are required for SQA qualifications. The head of a maths department will want those 160 hours. How on earth does a school timetable 160-hour courses without squeezing the teaching and learning of young people, if they are asked to do more than that? Schools can maintain six, seven, or even eight, choices for young people, but that is not in one year—it is over the final phase of curriculum for excellence and its implementation.
I will finish with an anecdote—there have a been a few of those this afternoon. My son did advanced higher music, and he is now studying music at the University of the West of Scotland. He did not do that advanced higher at his own school, because his school could not offer it; he did it at another school in a cluster of schools . He got on the bus and went to the other school and got the choices that he wanted. A lot of what has been talked about this afternoon does not take into consideration the way in which schools work together.
It will come as a surprise to no one—certainly, it did not to me—that the limited choices that the motion outlines today are the case in Dundee. As I understand from a Dundee City Council policy paper, which I quoted earlier to the cabinet secretary, Dundee City Council’s policy is for pupils to study a maximum of six subjects at national 4 and 5 in S4 and up to five highers and advanced highers in S5 and S6. The position is therefore equal across our city, but the policy has been used to limit choice for everyone in the city, in all eight secondary schools.
At higher level, only two out of the eight secondary schools in the city are hitting their target for the number of higher passes that they are expected to achieve, with deprivation factored in. A couple of schools that were previously considered to be the highest performing schools in the city fall well below their benchmark expected figure of higher passes. I feel strongly that that is not good enough for the children who are going through education at the moment and I am sure that a number of parents locally agree with me.
We have a duty to look carefully at exactly what is happening. At lunch time today, Bill Bowman and I spoke to primary 6 children from Fintry primary school in Dundee. In a year’s time, they will go to Braeview academy. Twelve per cent of pupils at Braeview achieve five or more highers, but its benchmark figure, with deprivation factored in by the Scottish Government, is 27 per cent of pupils. Less than half of the pupils who should be achieving five or more highers are being allowed to fulfil their potential. For that lovely class of bright-eyed, enthusiastic primary 6s, the restriction in subject choice is a problem, as it will hit them the hardest, as Iain Gray outlined. The attainment gap is real for them; it is hitting them now and it will hit them in the terms of the motion in three or four years. For them, the cuts to teacher numbers in our schools are a reality.
This week, we have seen a storm brew in Dundee over pupil equity funding. We learned at the start of the week that swimming lessons for primary school pupils across Dundee have been withdrawn—I will raise that issue directly with the First Minister tomorrow. Targeted Scottish Government funding of £200,000 for the top-up swimming programme came to an end in 2015 and has never been replaced. Dundee City Council has said:
“Head teachers have been given the opportunity to explore how swimming lessons can be delivered through the Pupil Equity Fund and Leisure and Culture Dundee’s Family Swimming Initiative.”
It seems that headteachers can raid the pupil equity funding pot or parents can pay for the lessons themselves. Pupil equity funding was trumpeted by John Swinney as extra cash for schools in deprived areas to spend, as they know best how to close the attainment gap.
The SNP council in Dundee is now telling headteachers to spend that money to replace services that used to be provided centrally. Headteachers are being asked to use the pupil equity funding to mitigate the cuts. However, I hear that, this morning, John Swinney said to the Education and Skills Committee that the SNP council in Dundee is wrong to do that. Can he perhaps clarify that—
It is probably worth saying at the outset that I firmly believe that we cannot measure a pupil’s success just by the number of highers that they have in their hand when they leave school, or indeed the school’s success in educating children by the number of qualifications that the children have when they leave school. Those are important factors, but we should not dwell on them alone in determining the success of individuals or, indeed, of our education system.
Liz Smith closed her speech by talking about what she felt was one of the underlying causes of the lack of subject choice in some schools in Scotland, which was teacher shortages. I want to focus on that point in my short speech. Clearly, the issue of teacher numbers affects many parts of Scotland, particularly some rural parts, including Moray, which I represent. I have been involved with that issue over the past few years.
Of course, it is not a question of cash; the money is there. We keep calling for more resources and more money. Where we have some teacher shortages, it is not about money. The money is there, but people are simply not applying for the jobs, particularly in some of our more rural areas. That puts pressure on schools, particularly at primary level, where the headteachers and deputy headteachers have to help out in the classroom, which can sometimes take focus away from the leadership role. In secondary schools, it can mean that there are not as many subject choices as one would like, but there are enough to give people a good education and that is what matters at the end of the day.
It is not just teachers that many rural areas are struggling to attract, but professionals in other occupations. The Government and the Parliament need to research why people are not applying to work in rural areas when it comes to some of those professional jobs.
“I recognise that recruitment and retention is difficult for schools and that one of the biggest threats to this is workload.”
The Education and Skills Committee, of which I am a member, recently visited Finland and Sweden to discuss their education systems. We heard from the Swedish educationists that teacher recruitment is a big issue in Sweden as well, and that teacher shortages are projected in the years ahead. It is not just Moray that is affected, and not just Scotland, but England, Sweden and many other places in western Europe, too. We have to research why that is the case.
Important measures are being taken, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s intervention, which I hope will lead to there being more home-grown teachers in our local communities. In the Highlands and the north of Scotland, that means working with the University of the Highlands and Islands, where some good initiatives are under way to retrain people from other careers to become teachers, or to help people to train locally as teachers. That is beginning to make a difference, so there are things that we can do.
There are also things that the United Kingdom Government can do, working with Scottish local authorities, and perhaps the Conservatives can look into that. I am talking about dealing with our immigration situation, which makes it difficult for teachers, some of whom are married to Scots and have jobs in schools, to get their visas so that they can actually take up their jobs and work in those schools to plug vacancies. I do not know whether there is anything else that the Government can do on sponsoring visas, and I know that there are issues in some areas because the local authorities do not sponsor visas. Perhaps the Government or some other authority could step in—I encourage the cabinet secretary to look into that.
The Conservatives can help us with this debate, if we are to take a team Scotland approach and deal with the poverty that is impacting on the classroom in Scotland. The Education and Skills Committee is looking at the impact of poverty on educational attainment, and all the witnesses who have spoken about that have cited the UK Government’s welfare reform programme as damaging people’s educational opportunities in our schools. That is leading to a huge burden for our teachers, our schools, the education budget, our local authorities and the Scottish Government. I therefore ask the Scottish Conservatives to look at the issue as a whole so that we can give the best future to the young people of Scotland.
I consider this to be a very important debate on an issue that has, rightly, been the subject of much discussion in the education world. Indeed, subject choice is increasingly raised with me by constituents, as is the issue of careers guidance in our schools.
Subject choice is crucial when it comes to the future career paths of our young people. Many schools do an excellent job in that respect, but we know that a sizeable minority of schools are not providing our young people and their parents with everything that they need to know. Professor Jim Scott’s work has uncovered the worrying picture that over a third of schools are not adhering to the Scottish Government’s guidelines for local authorities when it comes to the comprehensive details surrounding the column structures offered on their curriculum; that is surely a matter that we need to address with some urgency.
I want to deal with the specific issue of the curriculum for excellence, which was intended to build on the traditional broad education for which Scotland was long renowned. Instead, however, because of the lack of a joined-up approach between S1 and S3 and then the senior phase, it has—perhaps unwittingly—narrowed subject choice in S4; there are particular concerns for those pupils who are leaving school at the end of S4 or the end of S5 with passes at only national 5. If their subject choice is restricted, they leave with fewer qualifications.
Concern that that might happen was flagged up in the early stages of curriculum for excellence development, and it certainly manifested itself on a practical level six years ago, when parents in Aberdeenshire complained about what was happening in some schools. After First Minister’s question time last week, a recently retired headteacher wrote to one of my colleagues to say that he knew at first hand what the slow erosion of subject choice was doing. He singled out, in particular, the effect on modern languages, citing how few pupils sat higher German this year.
Professor Jim Scott’s recent report showed that, in the past year alone, the number of schools offering just six subjects at S4 has increased from 45 to 57 per cent, that only 32 per cent of schools allow children to sit seven subjects and that just 11 per cent offer eight. The consequence of that does not stop at S4; there is a knock-on effect on the subjects that are available at higher and advanced higher, and the severity of that problem is felt in some of the most disadvantaged communities.
It is shocking that someone at a school in one of the wealthiest parts of Scotland has a 70 per cent chance of being able to choose between 12 or more advanced highers, yet there are just two schools in the poorest parts of Scotland where pupils can choose between that number. Eighty-nine per cent of schools surveyed said that difficulties recruiting teachers constrain subject choice. The fact that the Scottish Government’s statistics show that there has been a 13 per cent decline in secondary school teachers over the past 10 years speaks for itself. In priority STEM subjects, including maths, several councils have been unable to fill teacher posts, which has resulted in whole courses and subjects being dropped.
I will conclude by saying something on the issue of careers guidance. It is absolutely essential that careers guidance is well informed and thorough, especially when many pupils have fewer subjects to choose from. What assurances can the cabinet secretary give us that career guidance will improve? Advice is not being provided on a universal basis, which is a major worry when compounded with a more restrictive subject choice in S4 and a teacher shortage. That is why I support the motion in the name of Liz Smith.
This is a very important debate and one that I am glad to take part in. I agree with my colleague Richard Lochhead that we should not measure young people’s or schools’ success on the basis of the number of highers that people have in their hand; it is about the destination, the development and where they end up as time goes on. We have had this debate in various guises over the years in my time on the education committees, which is no bad thing, because it shows how serious we all are about the subject.
I will talk about what is actually happening in our communities because, all in all, it is a positive story. Things are improving. I am not for one minute saying that everything is perfect, because there is always scope to do better, but the facts speak for themselves. More young people than ever before are leaving school with marketable, reputable and well-respected qualifications, which is a testament to our education system and our teachers. Importantly, more young people from our most deprived communities are gaining highers and advanced highers and moving on to positive destinations. Indeed, the number of students from Scotland’s most deprived areas gaining a university place reached a record high of 4,150 after results day last year, which was an increase of about 680 students over the previous two years alone.
With numbers like that clearly laid out, I find it absolutely fascinating that members continue to talk down the Scottish education system and suggest that pupils achieve in spite of the system and not because of it. We all know that our teachers work exceptionally hard to ensure that every student in Scotland, irrespective of their background or postcode, can reach their full potential and gain the necessary qualifications to move on to their college, university or employment of choice. My constituency has huge diversity, but over 92 per cent of school leavers go into positive destinations. I have spoken to many students who were the first in their family to attend university. The young people who I have had the pleasure of chatting to when I am out and about in the constituency have never once suggested that they have achieved what they have in spite of the education system. Quite the opposite is true—most Paisley students have nothing but good things to say about their school experience.
I admit that there are always many challenges for us to face and we will continue to face them, but I think that everyone in here wants our children and young people to be happy in school and to leave with the breadth and depth of knowledge that will give them the best possible start in life. It goes without saying that we all want our young people to have the widest possible choice of subjects and classes. For those reasons, the Scottish Government is encouraging schools not only to be flexible in their timetabling but to look at options to give students choices beyond their school walls.
In the previous parliamentary session, the Education and Culture Committee visited a number of schools that had embraced flexibility in timetabling, and they explained to us the marked difference that that had made in the school. The schools were in areas of deprivation and challenges and they told us that, when they had that opportunity, they could make a difference.
Currently, there are a number of very good examples of schools being flexible and looking at outside options. We have heard about the higher hub at Glasgow Caledonian University and the virtual school network in the Highland Council area. Those are examples of how this Government is encouraging local authorities to widen the curriculum and allow students to make early connections with further education institutions.
It is only right that we debate this issue, because it is very important to every member here. There is nothing more important than creating opportunities for our children and young people. In this debate, we have to look to the future, but let us not forget that progress has been and is being made.
I thank the Conservatives for bringing this debate to the chamber and for allowing us to debate the choices that are available to children and young people to allow them to follow whatever path they choose. The debate has also been an opportunity to discuss the attainment gap, as we recognise in the Labour amendment, which I ask members to support.
In their opening speeches, both Liz Smith and Iain Gray clearly laid out the concerns over the narrowing of curricular choice and the impact that that has on attainment, particularly in relation to languages and STEM subjects. As Iain Gray highlighted, the languages issue is a long-standing one, with a huge drop in the number of pupils gaining language qualifications. He also highlighted concern about the rise in the number of pupils who leave school with no qualifications at all.
Lack of curricular choice is exacerbated by where people live, with many rural schools being disadvantaged. Clare Adamson spoke about curriculum for excellence being “pupil based and focused”. Limiting choice does not support pupils; it disadvantages them. As Liz Smith said, since 2007, we have lost nearly 3,500 teachers; we have also lost teaching assistants, and literacy and numeracy rates are falling and the attainment gap is rising. Jenny Marra spoke of situations in which PEF is used to mitigate cuts to core funding.
The First Minister has asked to be judged on her education record, and I hope that she and the education secretary will take on board the legitimate concerns of MSPs across the chamber and the concerns of teachers, pupils and parents. Limiting subject choice limits opportunities. Children in S4 should not have the paths that life can offer them narrowed at such a young age. Of course we want children to achieve the best qualifications, but it is short sighted to limit subject choice in order to glorify exam outcomes.
We welcome the education secretary’s recognition that the attainment gap needs to be addressed. However, we need wide-reaching solutions and investment to match those solutions in order to tackle the stubborn gap. The attainment gap in our schools will not vanish or reduce with one single fix. PEF is an important tool, but it is not available in every school. Where it is, evidence suggests that schools need better support and guidance about how to best use it to reduce the attainment gap.
As our amendment highlights, in the long term, limiting subject choices, particularly for schools in the poorest areas, will harm any attempts to reduce the attainment gap, and for many it will limit the opportunities to attend university after leaving school. Local authorities need security of funding to recruit more permanent teachers. Only then can we offer pupils more choices on what to study, so that each pupil can pursue whatever career path they wish.
All our young people, regardless of what school they attend or where they live, should have the same choice, the same opportunity and the same support. Aspiration cannot and should not be limited by the choices that are available. Scottish education has traditionally been well respected across the UK and abroad. Given the scale of the cuts, the damage done to schools and the limiting of subject choice, the First Minister and the education secretary are presiding over an education system that will lose the respect of its teachers, pupils and parents.
We, in Scottish Labour, want to work with the First Minister and the education secretary to ensure that education in Scotland remains as revered as it always was and always should be.
This debate has focused on the issue of choice, highlighting the importance of ensuring that young people have a range of options available to them and that they are well supported in making the decisions that are right for them. As the Deputy First Minister said in his opening speech, those are central themes in the learner journey review report, which was published on 10 May.
Tavish Scott asked for a considered way forward and I suggest that the learner journey review provides exactly that, for this issue and many others. It is informed by the views of partners across the education and skills system; perhaps more important in the year of young people, it is also informed by the views of young people. They made it clear that, to ensure that they have access to the choices that are right for them, we need to strike the right balance and have the right blend of learning options in the post-15 education and skills system, with parity of esteem across the whole system. We are equally clear that every young person has the right to effective guidance, advice and support so that they can be sure that they make the right decisions about their learning and career pathways.
The first theme in the review is the need for better advice and guidance. I point Alison Harris, in particular, to the review as she spoke about that need, which is an integral theme of the year-long process that we have been through. The report talks about the connection between the guidance that young people receive on subject choices and, longer term, their career options.
In progressing that priority, we will undertake work to map the availability of advanced higher provision around Scotland. That will help to fulfil our commitment to provide practitioners, parents, carers and learners with access to online prospectuses that set out the learner choices that are available in their region, which builds on our one-stop-shop approach. That deals with some of the points that Ross Greer and other members made during the debate about the challenges in some areas—particularly rural areas—with regard to the breadth of the curriculum. The learner journey review does exactly what Mr Greer asked us to do: it looks at the barriers that need to be addressed to ensure that all schools and councils are innovative and provide greater choice in their area.
With S4 places down by 150,000 since 2016, college places down by 150,000 since 2006, teacher numbers down by 3,400 and teacher salaries down by 20 per cent, does the minister agree that, when those simple reasons exist, we do not need to look for complicated reasons for the fall in educational attainment and achievement, in the broadest sense, around Scotland?
John Scott will not be surprised to hear that I utterly disagree with his assessment of the education system. I will take two of those points. First, I will not apologise for the fact that we have developed college places that are based on recognised qualifications that lead to employment. Secondly, the discussion around what happens in S4 shows a lack of understanding that S4 is the start of the learner’s journey in the senior phase. That is what the curriculum of excellence is all about. It focuses on the learner’s total achievement and their three-year progression through the senior phase. I am sorry that Mr Scott does not understand the basis on which the curriculum of excellence was brought in.
The second priority from the learner journey review is to ensure that more choice is provided through work-based opportunities. We want to be able to provide a balance of work-based and academic skills that is informed by employer engagement. We want the opportunities that members spoke about, such as foundation apprenticeships, to be driven forward as good destinations for our young people, as well as providing for the needs of the Scottish economy.
Thirdly, we want to improve the alignment of courses between schools, colleges, apprenticeships and universities so that young people are able to progress through the post-15 education system as smoothly and effectively as possible.
The learner journey review that the Scottish Government undertook echoes many of the themes that have emerged in the debate. In Liz Smith’s opening remarks, she mentioned the purpose of S6, which is clearly dealt with in the learner journey review. The review also looks at informal learning, which Tavish Scott brought up. I am happy to agree with him about that. The Government is working to ensure more recognition of informal learning and is dealing particularly with points that Iain Gray made in a debate on the year of young people.
Young people need to be provided with better advice, more opportunities and coherent routes through education. The attainment gap is closing and the Government is continuing to work on that. There is more work to do, but we are proud of our work on the agenda so far.
It is clear that the minister listened to a different debate from the one that took place. Little in her speech touched on the core issues that the motion raises, and she did not really connect with the many points that members from different parties made about their experience and about the substantial evidence, which my colleague Liz Smith forensically laid out at the start of the debate.
The issue matters because no task is more important for the Parliament than ensuring that our young people get the best start in life, that they are fully equipped for the challenges of the future and that they are ready to contribute to and lead our society. Subject choice—I stress the importance of the word “choice”—lies at the heart of making good on that promise. I am young enough to still remember how important such decisions are in an ever-changing world in which people’s career opportunities change several times in their lifetime. People should continue to benefit from the same opportunities as I and many members across the chamber enjoyed.
We say that curriculum for excellence is about empowering the individual learner and giving them more input into their education. Given that, it is surely ironic that, as we have heard today, the reality of the new curriculum for many young people is that they have less choice than ever before at a crucial juncture. I was astonished that the cabinet secretary claimed that that was an intentional consequence. It is clear that, like Clare Adamson, he does not remember that, back in 2009, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Fiona Hyslop, said:
“I want to see breadth of experience in S4. There are some misplaced concerns that there will be restrictions ... I will not accept a situation in which there are restrictions.”—[
, 7 January 2009; c 13684.]
Detailed evidence has now been laid out over a period to show that there have been restrictions. There is no getting away from that.
We have heard from members across the chamber that there is no doubt that the problem is compounded by, and in many cases arises because of, teacher shortages and vacancies, particularly in STEM subjects. That is not good enough. We know about the problem, but the action to fix it is painfully slow.
I agree with the cabinet secretary that many curriculum choices should be decided at school level. That is a good idea that enhances the system, but how can we possibly expect a broad range of subjects to be on offer when a number of schools do not even have the teachers to teach them?
I accept that one reason for restrictions on the number of courses—certainly in Fife schools—is a lack of teachers, particularly in STEM subjects, but another reason is the budget. Does Oliver Mundell accept that? Does he also accept that failed austerity from the Westminster Government is contributing to the problem?
I do not accept the member’s point. The Scottish Government has got more money to spend than ever before. It is political choices that have been made in Parliament that are having an effect on our young people. It is time to recognise that fact. The SNP Government should stop hiding behind other people.
To be fair—if the cabinet secretary could stop shouting—Richard Lochhead gave a far more considered and reasonable speech on teacher shortages. He highlighted some of the issues that we face in rural areas and I would welcome more research into the causes of that in my own constituency.
From the general reaction, it is easy to understand why, throughout this debate, the SNP Government has sought to muddy the waters and talk about a different issue. The cabinet secretary does not want to talk about choice, but I can give him a few practical examples.
Last week, I visited Langholm academy, in my constituency. The one issue that pupils chose to raise with me was the fact that they were not able to take the subjects that they wanted to. That was to do not with availability but with the fact that their choice had been reduced to six subjects, which meant that they were not able to take both history and chemistry. One young person told me that he loved history—
Mr Mundell cited the example of Langholm academy. If we were to follow his view of the world in relation to choice being available to schools, and if Langholm academy decided to have a particular level of choice available to young people, what would he do about that if he disagreed with it? Would he accept the right of the school to set that level, or would he just come here and complain about something that he approves of principle?
That is a complete mischaracterisation of the situation because, in fact, teachers at Langholm academy support the view of pupils that there should be a broader range of subject choices, but they do not have enough teachers to deliver that. Secondly, the school is being directed by the local authority and, like a significant number of schools—more than 50 per cent—it feels that it is being pushed towards allowing pupils to take just six subjects. That has not happened by accident. It is not a school-level choice; it is a systemic problem across the whole of Scottish education, and it is about time that the cabinet secretary took that seriously.