Subject Choice in Secondary Schools

– in the Scottish Parliament on 25th April 2019.

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Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

6. To ask the First Minister what measures the Scottish Government will put in place to reverse the reported decline in subject choice in secondary schools. (S5F-03268)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The purpose of the curriculum is to provide young people with the skills, knowledge and experiences that will prepare them for their lives beyond school and provide them with the best possible opportunities to fulfil their potential. As I have said in the chamber today, our focus must be on the whole school experience, the range of qualifications that are achieved and the destinations of young people when they leave school. We will continue to ensure that that is the case.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Does the First Minister recognise that the biggest concern for pupils and parents is the growing inequity in subject choice? What is her answer to parents who are very concerned that their children receive a choice of only six subjects in S4, whereas children in other schools receive a choice of seven or eight? Many parents feel that their youngsters are being disadvantaged when it comes to college and university applications.

The First Minister:

I take those issues seriously. As I said earlier, we will pay close attention to Reform Scotland’s report and to the Education and Skills Committee’s review.

However, I repeat some of the points that I made earlier. I hope that everyone in the chamber accepts that it is not simply the qualifications that young people get in S4 that count, but the qualifications that they get across the three years.

In response to Liz Smith’s question, this is what I say to parents: the evidence shows that more young people are going to university, including more young people from our deprived communities. The evidence suggests, contrary to the assertion that young people, particularly those in deprived communities, are somehow being disadvantaged, that the attainment gap is closing. That is the reverse of the concern that Liz Smith raises.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

The truth is that pupils now study a broader curriculum for longer, and when they go on to choose their subjects—[

Interruption

.] I used to teach it. When they choose their subjects, they study them in far greater detail than they did under standard grades.

Progression and depth are the principles of curriculum for excellence, which is a system that the Tories used to support. Does the First Minister think that Liz Smith is wilfully ignoring those facts, or has she just not done her homework?

The First Minister:

I think that all these issues should be taken seriously and we should listen to all views on them. Contrary to what some on the Tory and Labour benches seem to think, I think that we should particularly listen to the views of a teacher, which Jenny Gilruth was before she entered Parliament.

The evidence says that more young people are leaving school with qualifications, more young people are leaving school with five highers or more and more young people are going into positive destinations, including university. Those are the outcome facts and I have not heard any member of the Opposition manage to explain how that aligns with the analysis that they are putting forward.

We will continue to do the hard work necessary to ensure that we continue to see improvements in education.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Unlike Liz Smith and Jenny Gilruth, I was not a teacher, but I was a pupil not that long ago. [

Laughter

.] Is the First Minister concerned that the Government’s own education agency refuses to acknowledge what a number of studies have now shown, which is that the number of subjects on offer to young people, particularly at higher level, has a direct correspondence with the level of deprivation in their community?

The First Minister:

Of course, we will pay attention to all the views that are expressed. Again, I point out the fact that, if all those things were creating the disadvantage that Ross Greer and others are suggesting, we would not be in a situation in which the attainment gap in access to university is at an all-time low. The numbers from deprived communities going into university are at a high.

The evidence suggests that, far from pupils from deprived communities being held back, they are doing better than they have ever done before. We need to concentrate on making sure that that progress continues.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Can I suggest—[

Interruption

.]

The Presiding Officer:

Order, please. Let us listen to the question. [

Interruption

.] Pay attention, please. [

Laughter

.]

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Thank you. That would not have happened back in the day, I can tell you.

I may not be a teacher now and I am no longer a parent of young children, but I suggest that the First Minister listens to teachers, parents and the evidence from the experts. They are telling us that the system is more unequal than it was before, and they are disturbed that the evidence suggests that the poorest, most disadvantaged young people in our communities are more disadvantaged than they were before. I urge her to look to the evidence and address that question. [

Interruption

.]

The Presiding Officer:

Order, please. That is enough.

The First Minister:

We will listen to views and evidence from wherever it comes. [

Interruption

.] I say in all seriousness to Johann Lamont that what I will not ignore—what nobody should ignore—are the results of our education system. The fact of the matter is that we have a record number of school leavers in higher education. The number of school leavers from the most deprived areas in higher education is up 8 percentage points since a decade ago and, overall, the numbers of people from deprived areas at university are at a record high. The evidence does not bear out the suggestion that the attainment gap—the inequality gap—is growing; on the contrary, all the evidence shows that that gap is narrowing. Everything that we do in Government and in our education system will be designed to ensure that that gap continues to narrow, because that is what all of us should be focused on.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will move on shortly to a members’ business debate in the name of Bill Kidd, on international workers memorial day 2019. Before that, we will have a short suspension to allow members, ministers and those in the public gallery to leave or change seats.

12:45 Meeting suspended.

12:47 On resuming—