Education (Subject Choice)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 25th April 2019.

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Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

Just before the recess, I tackled the First Minister on the subject choice crisis in Scotland’s schools. Her response was one of denial but, this week, Reform Scotland published a report that spelled out that whereas, previously, most pupils could study up to eight subjects at secondary 4, under curriculum for excellence, in most cases that figure is now only six. Does the First Minister still refuse to accept that that is a problem?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I have read the Reform Scotland study that was published this week. As much of the work on the topic does, it looks at S4 but, as Jackson Carlaw knows, the senior phase in school does not consist only of S4—it lasts for three years. What matters is the qualifications and awards that pupils leave school with, not just the subjects that they study at S4.

The percentage of pupils who get qualifications at level 5 and above is up and the percentage who leave with highers is up. Back in 2009, the percentage of pupils who got five highers or more was 22 per cent; last year, it was more than 30 per cent. The attainment gap between rich and poor at higher level is at an all-time low, a record number of school leavers are in higher education and the number of school leavers from the most deprived areas in higher education has gone up by eight percentage points since a decade ago. On the day that school pupils across the country start sitting their exams, we should be paying tribute to the excellent work that they are doing.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

What matters is the breadth as well as the depth of education and the choices that are available to pupils.

Yesterday, the Education and Skills Committee was told that the problem is curriculum for excellence. Guidance was issued, but it proved so confusing that, in 2016, it was reissued. However, it is still a mess, and it now seems likely that the Scottish Government will have to redraft it yet again. Will it be third time lucky? Perhaps.

Yesterday, witnesses who appeared before the Education and Skills Committee said that a mid-term review, which was recommended back in 2015, was necessary. They also noted that Education Scotland had “other priorities” and that it was “getting round to it”. First Minister, does that not just sum up this Government?

The First Minister:

Education Scotland is working on reducing bureaucracy and tackling unnecessary workload for teachers, which Jackson Carlaw has asked us to do in the past. Education Scotland is getting on with the job.

Jackson Carlaw is, to some extent, right when he says that the issue is about the choices that young people have and the breadth of education. Of course, curriculum for excellence is designed to provide those. However, the issue is about choice and breadth across the entirety of the senior phase, not in one year of the senior phase alone.

The problem with Jackson Carlaw’s analysis is that the outcomes from education that we are seeing, which I have just cited to the chamber, do not bear it out. More young people are leaving school with qualifications, the number of young people who leave school with five highers or more has gone up and there are record numbers in higher education, including record numbers of students from deprived areas.

I am the first to concede that we have more work to do. That is why we are getting on and doing it. However, the evidence that I have just read out says that young people in our schools and our education system are performing well, and they and their teachers should be congratulated on it.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

The evidence suggests that the First Minister is not the first but the last to concede that more needs to be done.

S4 is precisely the stage when pupils should have the opportunity to experience the broadest range of subjects. Scotland was once famed around the world for the breadth of its education; now, curriculum for excellence is narrowing horizons.

It gets worse. Yesterday, we learned that curriculum for excellence is so confusing—added to the fact that there are too few teachers—that pupils at different levels are being taught together, not just at national 4 and 5 level, but at higher level. In consequence, a 14-year-old and even an 18-year-old could be being taught in the same classroom. I do not think that that is appropriate. Does the First Minister?

The First Minister:

Again, the problem with Jackson Carlaw’s analysis of those issues is that the results that are coming from Scottish education do not bear out the criticisms that he makes. I know that he does not like the evidence. He talks about breadth of education. Curriculum for excellence means that young people now get a broad general education right up until S3. They then have three years of the senior phase, during which they can study a range of different subjects.

I go back to the evidence. If Jackson Carlaw was correct, we would not have a situation today in which a greater proportion of pupils than ever before leave school with qualifications—national fives and highers. We would not have a situation in which the proportion of young people who leave school with five highers or more has actually gone up significantly over the past number of years. And we would not have a situation in which a record number of young people go on to positive destinations, including a record number who go into higher education.

Those are the results of our education system and they simply do not bear out the analysis that Jackson Carlaw is bringing to the chamber. Those are the facts.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

Incredibly, the First Minister’s position seems to be that an increase in the number of qualifications gained by pupils can be achieved only by narrowing the options that are available to them for study.

Curriculum for excellence is only a few years old, so we are only starting to see its impact. All of us want to see the improvement of schools as our number 1 priority, but we cannot just ignore the evidence this week from Professor Jim Scott, a headteacher with 18 years’ experience, who said:

“We are in danger of a whole generation going past who have not had a good experience in education.”

Despite the best efforts of our teachers and despite the hard work of our pupils, a whole generation is being let down on the First Minister’s watch. Can the First Minister not see this for the failure of her Government that it is?

The First Minister:

As we debate these things, young people across Scotland are sitting their exams, and to talk down their achievements in the way that Jackson Carlaw just has is an absolute disgrace.

We have a situation in which young people can sit more vocational awards to make sure that they have the skills that they need for the workplace. Again, I note that Jackson Carlaw has not taken on any of the facts that I have cited to him. More young people are leaving school with qualifications, but he says, “Oh yeah, but that’s about a narrowing.” Then I point to the fact that more young people are leaving school with five or more highers. Why can Jackson Carlaw not accept that that is an achievement of our young people, their parents and their teachers?

We will continue to work to improve Scottish education, but as we do so, we will pay tribute to the great work that teachers and pupils are already doing.