I open the debate by reiterating our belief on the Conservative benches that Scottish education should be based on excellence and equity and that it can once again lead the world in delivering the highest standards. However, that will not happen until the Scottish Government changes its focus.
Scottish education was so admired around the world because there was universal understanding that good schooling was the key that could unlock so many different opportunities in life, never mind in employment. There was an expectation that everyone, irrespective of class or background and whatever type of school they attended, would have a good grounding in the basic skills and that poor standards would never be tolerated. Teaching was a highly valued profession, leadership was generally strong and good schools were seen as the central component to build strong communities.
In short, many schools in Scotland were synonymous with excellence, and they did not need endless edicts from local or central government telling them what to do, because aspiration was ingrained in their DNA. The Scottish Government knows that it can no longer make that claim of all-round excellence.
This Parliament has spoken many times about the evidence that we should be doing a whole lot better if we are to match up to our full potential, as identified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in its most recent report on Scottish schools. It is our contention that we will not be able to unlock fully the potential that is undoubtedly there until we address the fundamental weaknesses in delivery of the curriculum for excellence, in relation to which the question of subject choice has become one of the most significant and pressing issues. It is causing considerable worry to parents, teachers and young people, and, of course, to the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee.
One of the other great attributes of Scottish education was the breadth of the curriculum, which was maintained not just in early secondary schooling, but in later secondary schooling, too. Indeed, that breadth, whereby young people could acquire national qualifications in a balanced group of science, social science and language subjects, as well as in English and maths, meant that the Scottish system was seen as superior to the A-level system in England and to several other curricular systems elsewhere.
At its inception, 15 years ago, the intention of the curriculum for excellence was to build on that success, but also, rightly, to recognise that, in the modern world, society required a greater focus on skills and personal and social responsibility than had previously been the case. In other words, education should not solely be about knowledge-based learning in the abstract; it should also be about how that knowledge is applied. Young people should have as great an understanding of why they are learning something as they should of what they are learning. As such, one of the intentions of the curriculum for excellence was to widen subject choice, not to reduce it. In 2008, the Scottish Government’s curriculum guidance made that principle abundantly clear.
No one could disagree that young people should understand why they are learning a particular subject or learning additional skills; the trouble is that the curriculum has completely lost its balance. As Professor Lindsay Paterson said in a recent article in
, the focus on core knowledge has been diminished. Our hard-pressed teachers have been so busy measuring “experiences and outcomes” and wading through the thousands of bits of paper that the education agencies have issued that they have had less time to get on with teaching what most people recognise as the core curriculum.
In the context of subject choice, the facts of what has happened have become increasingly clear over the past two years and the details are currently before the Education and Skills Committee. That said, concerns about the narrowing of subject choice were raised by Aberdeenshire schools as far back as 2013 and again in this Parliament by the Conservatives in 2015.
As the Parliament knows, the norm was for Scottish schools to offer eight subjects in secondary 4 and the subject choice column structure in the vast majority of schools was designed to do just that. We now know—thanks largely to the work of Professor Jim Scott—that the majority of schools in Scotland are offering only six subjects in S4. Those schools will undoubtedly offer other courses, too, many of which have a good pupil uptake and are highly educationally beneficial, but the fact remains that they are offering fewer core subject choices than they were previously. I will address the impact of that shortly.
Does Liz Smith not understand the inherent contradiction in that last remark? At the same time as welcoming the fact that other curriculum choices and offerings are available to pupils in schools, she is bemoaning the fact that that has led to a reduction in the range of subjects that young people are ordinarily choosing in S4. However, that reduction applies only in one particular year, at a time when more young people are staying on at school for longer and so have the opportunity to take further courses.
There is no contradiction whatever in what I said because, as the Education and Skills Committee was reminded this morning, the critical issue is not about the numbers; it is about the qualitative effect on the subject choices that young people can make. The concern that the Parliament is hearing about is that there has been a diminution of the core subjects that pupils not only want to but need to take—and that Scotland needs them to take for its economic benefit. That is the key point.
There is another fundamental point here—the growing inequity across the country. We know that 32 per cent of schools are still managing to offer seven subjects and 11 per cent of schools are still offering eight subjects, as well as schools in the independent sector. We know, too, that important evidence points to young people at schools in more disadvantaged communities generally being likely to be offered fewer subjects than those in the more affluent areas.
In evidence to the Scottish Parliament, the Royal Society of Edinburgh said that schools have “undoubtedly” cut the number of subjects that pupils can sit, and this has hurt the pupils from the most deprived communities the most. Marina Shapira of the University of Stirling said that the finding had been “striking”—namely, that there was
“a clear relationship between the rate of reduction in the number of subjects made by S4 pupils and the level of school area deprivation.”—[
Education and Skills Committee
, 19 September 2018; c 11.]
She was clear about the subsequent disadvantage to those in those schools—something which parents believe negatively affects the employability of some young people.
That inequity is unacceptable, because it fundamentally undermines a key strength of Scottish education. If the cabinet secretary looks carefully at
Official Reports of the Education and Skills Committee, he will see that committee members—Labour, Liberal, Green, Conservative and Scottish National Party—are unanimous in our concern about that point.
The curriculum for excellence was also meant to provide greater autonomy for schools in curriculum development, but in many local authority areas across Scotland, the local authority appears to have taken a one-size-fits-all decision about how many subjects are offered. I am sure that I am not the only member to have received communications from parents asking me where the fairness lies in schools in one local authority that takes a blanket approach offering only six subjects in S4, while in neighbouring local authorities, that is not the case.
Yes. The fundamental principles of the curriculum for excellence have not allowed the two to match up. Of course, we need consistency and core curricular subjects in every school; we all agree on that and it is demonstrated by all the evidence that is coming back. However, as things stand, the curriculum for excellence—with the principles that it was supposed to enshrine—does not allow for that to happen. As far as we are concerned, that is a major concern.
I do not understand a fundamental point about the Conservatives’ position. I agree with the Conservatives that schools should have much more discretion over curricular choice. That is one of the fundamental elements of the headteachers’ charter that I am currently implementing in Scotland, so I agree with that point about school empowerment. However, I do not understand how Liz Smith can complain about the product of that school empowerment when it leads to schools taking different decisions from each other.
I will give the cabinet secretary the example that
Terry Lanagan of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland gave us. Tavish Scott asked if it was it possible, in some schools, for youngsters to take the three sciences. Mr Lanagan said that, of course, it is possible for them to take the three sciences, but in a school that permits only six subject choices, if a pupil takes the three sciences—physics, chemistry and biology—plus English and maths, they can take only one other subject. Where is the breadth in that? That is one of the serious problems with curriculum for excellence.
Sorry, no—I have taken quite a lot of interventions.
There is a significant issue for the traditional value and ethos of the Scottish curriculum—namely, having a strong balance between science, social sciences and languages and maintaining real breadth at higher. If the cabinet secretary needs more evidence of that, perhaps he could look at what has happened to the uptake of modern languages and the issues with science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, because those are issues that many of the people who give evidence to the Parliament complain about.
Of course, that also tells us that there is a huge imbalance between the broad general education—the name tells us something—and the senior phase. I think that it was Jenny Gilruth who, rightly, argued last week that young people have more subjects to study in the early years of secondary education, because of the three and three model, as opposed to the two, two, two model. I agree, but the huge problem is that in S4 they suddenly find that they have to drop down to six subjects, which, incidentally, has a knock-on effect on the timing of their subject choice decision.
What we are saying to the cabinet secretary is that effective choice, which has always underpinned the so-called gold standard of highers and advanced highers, is now being constrained. Clear evidence points to that, which should be a major concern for this Parliament.
There are three specific things that we have to deal with. The first is the strong suggestion made by Dr Alan Britton that there is confusion about the curriculum for excellence and that it remains unclear who takes ownership of the curriculum in Scotland. That ties in with the often-made point that broad general education is designed by Education Scotland and the senior phase is designed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. There is a disconnect somewhere along the line, and we are all agreed that we must do something about that.
Secondly, there must be a debate about what the core curriculum should offer in schools. If we look at what schools abroad are asked to do, we see that there is a desire to ensure a strong balance between knowledge-based learning and skills development, with the former seen as extremely important so that young people can make a fully informed choice.
The third thing is teacher numbers, because it is clear that the number of teachers has been squeezed, which is having a detrimental effect on the number of subjects. The availability of teachers for certain subjects is not as good as it should be.
Education is many things. It is the foundation on which we base our hopes and ambitions for our children, as well as something that touches our deepest emotions. It is the prerequisite for economic wealth, the guardian of our culture, the vehicle by which we learn about our rights and responsibilities and the key with which we unlock many doors to the wider world. It is also supposed to be the SNP’s top priority. How often have we heard in speeches or programmes for government that excellence and equity are the two principles that underpin Scottish education? How we wish that, in practice, they were.
Education is the most precious gift that we give to our young people but, for far too many of them, the current system of schooling in SNP Scotland is letting them down. The Scottish Conservatives believe that things could and should be so much better, so that Scotland can, once again, lead the world.
That the Parliament believes that Scottish education should be based on the principles of excellence and equity and that all young people, whatever their background, should be afforded the best possible educational experience at all levels of the curriculum; further believes that, while these principles are enshrined in the policy aims of the curriculum for excellence, the delivery of the new curriculum structure has exposed some fundamental failings with regard to subject choice, including the inequity that exists between schools in more affluent areas and those in more deprived communities, and calls on the Scottish Government to recognise the serious concerns, which have been expressed by teachers, parents, young people and academics, and take urgent action to address these failings in the delivery of the curriculum for excellence.
The purpose of curriculum for excellence is to provide young people with the skills, knowledge and experiences that will prepare them for life beyond school and enable them to fulfil their potential. We must support our young people to flourish in our modern, complex and uncertain world.
Curriculum for excellence was introduced after a major national debate on the aims and future of our education system. It represented a deliberate move away from an approach that prescribed the content of the curriculum to one that emphasised the autonomy of the professional teacher and the capacities and learning experiences of the learner. In short, CFE was predicated on the view that our teachers are best placed to know their learners and to work with partners to meet their needs and aspirations. They must have the flexibility to make the correct judgments about the journey of a young person.
Given all that, I am surprised that the debate has focused solely on counting the qualifications taken, with a particularly narrow focus on S4 in the three-year senior phase. Instead of looking at the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve—and, in many cases, succeeding in achieving—it is being implied that the new system is providing our young people with fewer opportunities. I do not recognise that.
To be technically correct, there is a relationship between the numbers and the choices—of course there must be. I am about to come on to the question of the breadth of choice, to which due justice was not given in Liz Smith’s speech.
When I wrote to the convener of the Education and Skills Committee in October last year, I was clear that any comparison of the current and previous systems needs to take into account the fundamental differences between curriculum design before and after the introduction of curriculum for excellence. Liz Smith did not refer to the fact that, in the broad general education phase, young people are entitled to study a wide range of subjects to a much deeper level, across the eight curricular areas, without the pressure of taking qualifications. That broad experience—which extends into S3, not S2—is one of the key differences that ensures that breadth is not lost. In the senior phase, young people have the opportunity to acquire a range of qualifications and awards over a three-year period—not a one-year period in S4.
I do not accept that that is pupils’ experience. Mr Mundell’s question suggests that when a young person leaves the broad general education phase they dispense with any bit of knowledge or skill that they ever acquired in it, which is a ridiculous argument to advance.
The guiding principle is that qualifications are taken at the appropriate stage for the individual young person over the three years of the senior phase, which represents an intended fundamental shift from the approach of the pre-CFE era.
In 2002, in the national debate that preceded the development of CFE, it was accepted that because the system involved too much assessment, it offered too little to equip young people to handle a range of challenges in life. The intention was to create a new system that gave schools the flexibility to design approaches that reflected both their own needs and those of their young people.
The OECD recommended that change should be driven by the profession itself, rather than from the political centre. For me, that is a fundamental issue in the debate. The curriculum models have been developed by the teaching profession in consultation with education professionals around the country. Further emphasis is now placed on the autonomy of the teacher—a move that I fully support and which is central to the Government’s empowerment agenda, which is intended to foster collaboration and create dynamic and innovative curriculum approaches.
Focusing on the numbers of qualifications that are taken in S4 simply does not recognise that CFE enables our young people to achieve higher levels of knowledge and experience across a broader range of subjects by the end of S3. Nor does it recognise that more and more young people stay at school beyond S4 or S5. S4 used to be the end of a phase of learning that had the aim of learners accumulating as many standard grades as possible, after which many of them opted out of school. That is no longer how young people interact with our education system. They stay at school longer, engage in school-college partnerships, take up opportunities through the developing Scotland’s young workforce agenda, and work towards a range of national progression awards. For all those reasons, a comparison between the number of standard grades that young people sat in S4 in the past and the current circumstances in Scottish education is misplaced.
Surely the comparison that matters is what young people achieve on exit from school. For example, last year, 62.2 per cent of school leavers left with qualifications at level 6 or better, which was an increase from 55.8 per cent in 2012-13.
If Mr Mundell will forgive me, I will not. I still have some detail to cover.
Work-based provision for young people in the senior phase is growing. The proportion of school leavers who attain vocational qualifications at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 5 and above has increased from 7.3 per cent in 2013-14 to 14.8 per cent in 2017-18. In 2018, 61,000 SQA skills-based qualifications, awards and certificates were achieved, which was an increase from 47,000 in 2014.
Above all else, we should celebrate the outcomes that are achieved by the education system. Last year, a record proportion of school leavers went on to positive destinations that included work, training or further study.
I will be very happy to explore the substance behind the figures, but we should recognise the fact that young people are leaving school with more qualifications and going on to better destinations.
I recognise the importance of this debate and the need for us to consider a broad range of evidence, but I am perplexed about why we are having the debate today. The Education and Skills Committee has embarked on an inquiry into the topic and it has held only three evidence sessions. Some of the evidence that the committee has heard already is highly disputed.
No. It has been disputed by academics other than those from whom the committee has heard. It has been disputed not just by me, but by other academics.
The committee has not heard from professional associations or the chief officers of education at local level.
What I cannot understand is why, given that we have an Education and Skills Committee process under way that is supposed take in excess of 20 hours to consider balanced evidence, because we need to have an evidenced debate on the subject, we are being asked today to debate in 160 minutes something that the committee has planned to take at least 20 hours to explore in detail in its proceedings.
The motion offers no evidence and no solutions. Subjects are already chosen for the next year, so we could have waited until the Education and Skills Committee had deliberated in June and informed our considered opinion about how to move forward.
Subject to what I hear today, I intend to ask the Government to support the Labour amendment, because I think that it makes a reasonable point. I consider my amendment to be equally reasonable. It does not try to dodge the debate. [
.] It does not. It just encourages us to look at the matter in an evidenced fashion and conclude what to do next, for the simple reason that that is what the people of Scotland would expect our Parliament to do. They expect us to listen to the evidence and come to a conclusion, not to have a debate that is anchored on a principle of political opportunism of the Conservatives, which is what we have today. [
.] For the benefit of Sir Edward Mountain, I will tell him again: it is political opportunism of the Conservative Party.
I move amendment S5M-17091.4, to leave out from “the delivery of the new curriculum” to end and insert:
“it is necessary to be assured that this is the case, particularly in relation to subject choice and how this is applied, especially in areas of deprivation; notes the Education and Skills Committee inquiry is underway on this subject but it has not yet heard from a range of witnesses, including representatives of the professional associations, Directors of Education, local government and the Scottish Government, and believes that the Parliament should return to consider this matter when the committee has had the opportunity to review the full range of evidence and its report is available.”
I say to members that because they were drumming on their desks, I could not hear what Ross Greer said. If I cannot hear what is said, the official report cannot hear it, so please do not keep that habit going. I understand passion, but do not drum on the desks so loudly, because I cannot hear what members are saying.
I t is quite usual in Opposition debates for parties to start by acknowledging the importance of the debate even if they are about to disagree with the substance of the motion. Today, the Government is taking a rather different approach, as we have just heard, with an amendment that says, in essence, that we should not be debating subject choice in our schools at all—at least, not today.
I hear the argument that the Government is simply respecting the work of the Education and Skills Committee and our inquiry into the topic, which is on-going—the Government is moved, no doubt, by its profound principles on due parliamentary process and balance. However, I am afraid that I do not buy that, for the very good reason that Parliament has now been asking it to take the issue seriously for four years. Some of us have been talking about it for a lot longer than 160 minutes, that is for sure.
It was back in May 2015 that Kezia Dugdale raised Dr Jim Scott’s analysis, which showed a fall in both enrolment and attainment in the new national exams. I elaborated on Dr Scott’s work in a Labour business debate that month, and Ms Dugdale raised it again with the First Minister in early June that year. The Government’s response then was to deny that there was a problem, to rubbish the research and even to suggest that Dr Scott, who is a respected educationist and former headteacher of several schools, did not really understand schools or exam statistics. Here we are, four years on, and the evidence of Dr Scott, who is now Professor Scott, has built, year on year.
The general trend is for schools to offer a maximum of six national subjects in S4—at most, seven—as opposed to the norm of eight standard grades under the old system, and there has been an average 17 per cent decline in overall take-up by national subject. A small proportion of that decline is to do with pupil population, but it is largely driven by a reduction in subject choice.
In the arts, we have seen a decrease of around 40 per cent in the number of enrolments in art, design and technology and music between 2013 and 2018. In the humanities, there has been a 12 per cent drop in the number of students taking modern studies—in which the exams are today, I think—a 35 per cent drop in the number of history enrolments and a 35 per cent drop in the number of geography enrolments. In languages, there are now 41 per cent fewer enrolments in German compared with 2015, and there has been a 61 per cent reduction in the number of French enrolments. In STEM subjects, the number of enrolments is 23 per cent down in biology, 28 per cent down in chemistry and 22 per cent down in physics, which is my old subject.
Indeed, Professor Scott is now telling us that some subjects are likely to disappear from the curriculum altogether—most notably, certain modern languages. He has been joined, in the ensuing four years, by colleagues such as Professor Mark Priestley and Dr Marina Shapira, who have demonstrated that the average number of national 5 entries per student dropped from 5.8 in 2013 to 3.7 in 2016—a 37 per cent decrease.
Those figures show the reality of the curriculum narrowing in terms of the subjects that pupils can choose as the new senior phase has been implemented.
We have also heard from the likes of Reform Scotland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which have presented evidence of the narrowing of our school curriculum and subject choice. Organisations that promote the teaching of subjects such as Gaelic and geography have sounded alarm bells about what they see as an existential threat to their subjects. In the survey that was carried out by the Education and Skills Committee, 76 per cent of parents said that their child had not been able to take the subjects they wanted to take because of the restrictions of the curriculum.
The Government’s defence has changed over the four years, and it is now largely founded in outcomes and increased higher passes. We have heard about that from the First Minister on a number of occasions when the topic has been raised. However, it is not good enough to think that our schools are succeeding solely on the basis of the success of the ablest and highest achieving pupils.
That is not the only statistic that the Government has used. I talked about the vocational SQA qualifications that have been achieved. I cited highers, but I also talked about positive destinations. A range of indicators suggest that young people are leaving Scottish education with better outcomes than they left with in the past.
I am afraid that, like my colleague Johann Lamont, I am never going accept destinations as a positive indicator when they include young people being exploited on zero-hours contracts. I am sorry, but, if the Government wants to use that statistic, it needs to fix that situation soon.
Professor Scott is clear that those who leave school with national-grade qualifications are the ones who are suffering most from all of this, and Reform Scotland shows that schools in deprived areas are likely to offer a narrower curriculum. The Deputy First Minister said that what matters is what pupils leave school with. Perhaps he should pay attention to the figures showing that the percentage of pupils who leave school with no qualification at all, although small, is increasing again after years of a falling trend.
That is not about just S4 or the impact on national exams. On the other side of the attainment gap, the evidence already presented to the committee shows that, although those pupils who were doing five highers are still doing five—why would they not? The ablest pupils always find their way through—they are finding their choice of subjects restricted by the narrower S4 choices preceding highers. They are committed to taking too few subjects too young, which leaves them without the broad formal education of which Scotland has always been so proud.
The evidence that there are unintended consequences of curricular and exam reform at play here is overwhelming. Nevertheless, the Government has refused to listen for four years now, and its amendment would simply kick the can down the road for another day—again.
Our amendment offers a sensible way forward. I am pleased that the Deputy First Minister accepts that, because it is also four years since the OECD report “Improving Schools in Scotland” recommended a further evaluation of CFE implementation, particularly the senior phase. That report is always prayed in aid by the cabinet secretary, so he should have no problem at all in accepting our amendment, as he said he will do. That will allow us to move the debate forward after far too long.
I move amendment S5M-17091.2, to insert at end:
“; believes that such action should include an evaluation of how the curriculum for excellence is actually being implemented in schools, as recommended by the OECD in its 2015 report,
Improving Schools in Scotland
, and considers that, although the senior phase was outwith the remit of this report, how the senior phase operates within the curriculum for excellence should be a priority for review.”
Yesterday, we discussed the inequality that is emerging in instrumental music tuition in schools. That same issue of inequality is playing out with subject choice.
From the information that we have, it seems quite clear that pupils in our most deprived communities have fewer subjects to choose from than young people in the most privileged postcodes. Whatever way that is presented, it is an inequality. It is another example of poverty and the economic situation of both their family and their community defining the life experience of young people in Scotland.
The Times in 2017 found that, on average, pupils in some of the most deprived communities were being offered a choice of 17 highers, whereas for pupils in the least deprived communities, which are often just a stone’s throw away, the average offer was 23 highers to choose from. I welcome the fact that we are getting more working-class Scots into university, but we will not make the progress that we all want to make—and we will not make it last—if that gap exists at the level of the qualifications that students need to get a university offer.
I welcome the fact that a greater variety of qualifications and other experiences are available. The aim is not to get every young person through five highers in S5, but there is a danger that—this appears to be the view of some people—if we explain away the reduced offer of highers in deprived communities by pointing to the other options, we will entrench inequality and maximising the higher offer in deprived communities will never be the goal, because other options exist. I do not think that that is anyone’s intention, but it appears to be creeping in as a way of explaining away the inequality.
I mention the research in
The Times from 2017 because the data that we are relying on, whether it is from
, Mark Priestley, Marina Shapira or Jim Scott, is independent—it is gathered and published by journalists and academics—and therein lies one of the key problems that we have when we are discussing subject choice. Education Scotland has flatly refused to acknowledge that there is, or even might be, an issue here, and it is not producing data to back up its assertion. The Government’s education agency is burying its head in the sand.
If Education Scotland were to produce data showing that there is no pattern of pupils in more deprived areas being offered fewer highers, I would be the first to welcome it, but right now we have data showing that the opposite is the case and nothing more than assertion from Education Scotland. If the Government were to instruct its education agency to gather the data, that would be a welcome first step—it would cut out the time-wasting exercise that we are currently engaged in, whereby Education Scotland claims that there is no problem.
One of the key issues that many schools face is the shortage of specialist subject teachers. We have discussed the challenges of teacher recruitment and retention a number of times, and we know that the problem is most acute in rural communities and deprived communities, which, in turn, only deepens existing inequalities, as schools in such communities are simply unable to offer the same subjects as schools in other areas. The core issues undermining the recruitment and retention of teachers are pay and workload. That is nothing that we did not already know. However, last month’s pay agreement will deliver a significant rise—a restoration—after a strong trade union campaign that saw one of the largest rallies ever organised by a single union when 30,000 people marched through Glasgow. That partial restoration of pay should go some way towards tackling the recruitment and retention problems and, in turn, the restrictions on subject choice that many schools face, but it is only part of the picture.
One of the core purposes of curriculum for excellence is to give schools the freedom to choose the best way to teach their pupils—which, again, is something that we all signed up to. That flexibility extends to the number of subjects that can be taken at national 5. We have seen schools offer anything from five to eight nat 5s, but there does appear to be a trend. Schools in the most privileged areas—the highest achieving schools by traditional academic standards—are often offering eight while many others have settled on six. That raises a host of issues. It is incredibly confusing for young people and their parents, and it leads many people to believe that their children are missing out on the opportunity to study more subjects for no reason other than their postcode.
To some extent, confusion is inevitable. Curriculum for excellence is supposed to give pupils the chance to engage in greater depth by taking, say, six national 5s compared to eight standard grades. However, the combination of a still very new system and one in which there is flexibility across the country was inevitably going to generate concern, and there is still some way to go in explaining curriculum for excellence to parents. The Government should consider how, in conjunction with local councils, it can do that.
This morning, the Education and Skills Committee was told by Eileen Prior, the director of Connect, that the number of nationals that are taken will not have any impact on whether a young person goes to university, because highers are the gold standard of Scottish education. Does Ross Greer recognise that?
I am just about to turn to the potential for the two-year higher in the system.
As I said, there is, clearly, structural misalignment in the system—in fact, Jenny Gilruth has ably brought that up in committee in recent weeks. The SQA states that each national 5 course requires 160 hours for completion. However, that is not possible for someone who does eight courses in one year, as the Educational Institute of Scotland and others have repeatedly highlighted. One concerning effect of that, in some cases, is the start of study towards national 5 in S3. That, in essence, mirrors the two-plus-two-plus-two model of the previous system, and it takes S3 out of the broad general education phase of the curriculum—which, again, was not an intended outcome.
There is a way in which eight subjects can be studied without those contradictions: it involves taking the two-year pathway across S4 and S5, which curriculum for excellence provides for. Not all of those eight courses would need to lead to qualifications, although they absolutely could. Although that approach would not work for every pupil—most obviously, those intending to leave before S5—it is an option that a few schools have embraced and that appears to be working. We would all benefit from greater study of that approach, preferably led by Education Scotland, although it again appears to be a trend that is directly related to the socioeconomic background of the area. Education Scotland needs to acknowledge that and explore the matter further.
The principles and priorities of curriculum for excellence are the right ones, but something is not working. Rather than prescribe a solution, the motion simply asks the Government to acknowledge the serious concerns that have emerged. I hope that the Government can see fit to swallow its pride and do just that.
I thank Liz Smith for bringing the debate today—I mean “today”, because I cannot be the only constituency MSP who has in the past week, while choices have been made by pupils and parents across Scotland, been asked to intervene with a local school on choices. I was asked to intervene with a school in Shetland on behalf of a person who wanted to take a vocational route into work, but was having difficulty because the choices in the columns that he was trying to work in were limited.
I am afraid that I do not understand Mr Swinney’s attack on the rest of us for what I see not as political opportunism, but as us simply doing our job. The other thing that is puzzling me is that, having attacked everyone for bringing forward and speaking in a debate on subject choice, Mr Swinney will accept Iain Gray’s amendment, which asks for the review for which many of us have been arguing for some time.
I was arguing that the committee is engaged in an evidence-gathering process, and that it is advisable that we hear all that evidence. The point that Iain Gray has raised is a perfectly reasonable one to advance. However, I do not see the point in having a debate today on a motion that has offered absolutely no positive solutions, when a committee process is currently under way.
I do not accept that analysis, not least because—[
Mr Swinney chunters away on the front bench. The thing about this Government is that it has been in power for so long that anyone who dares to suggest anything different gets put down and accused of political opportunism. That is the position that Mr Swinney is now in. I think that he needs to raise his game a bit. When parents come to talk to me about the fact that I have talked about subject choice in Parliament because that is what I should do as their representative, I will say to them that Mr Swinney’s response is that I am guilty of political opportunism. When I say that, I think that they will reply, “You’re doing your job; it’s about time he remembered what his is.”
The introduction of curriculum for excellence is one of 22 major education changes in Scotland since the second world war. Experts say that it takes a decade or more for reform to work and to be properly assessed for effectiveness. I see no evidence that the introduction of curriculum for excellence was designed to reduce the choice of learning for young people. However, the evidence now, in 2019, is unambiguous. Therefore Parliament, the Government and schools need to know what the consequences of narrowing subject choices in S4 are for a young person’s learning.
In assessment, the importance of different routes into work, informal and formal qualifications and the offering of vocational courses and experiences is essential—a point that I entirely concede to the cabinet secretary. This is not a debate about why Scots cannot sit three highers in S5 to qualify for medicine or veterinary studies at the University of Edinburgh, important though that topic is. It is a debate about understanding what is going on in schools and whether we need to alter the course of the education supertanker. Nobody is arguing today for a 90 degree swing of the wheel, but it seems that some change is necessary.
If nothing else, I cannot see why we would not want to have seven rather than six subject choices in S4 in Scotland’s 348 state secondary schools, and nor do I see why—Ross Greer rightly raised this—why 160 hours need to be delivered in one learning year, which sounds to me like a dash to learn. There is also the reality that in many schools across the country that is not happening.
Seven subject choices would create space in young people’s learning for languages including Gaelic, for STEM subjects, for computing science and, given that Parliament debated tuition yesterday, for music—all of which are in worrying decline across Scotland. That is surely the answer to Mr Swinney’s earlier intervention on Liz Smith’s speech, too.
However, to make that change alone, I entirely accept that the education secretary and schools need to know what the unintended consequences of narrowing subject choice are. That is why Iain Gray’s amendment is—in my view—entirely right. The education secretary has often rested on the 2015 OECD report as his justification for various educational initiatives, which is reasonable. It is therefore important in this case to reflect on the significant recommendation of the OECD on
“the need to evaluate how CfE is actually being implemented in schools and communities and for this to be done on an all-Scotland basis, not only in particular local authority areas.”
The OECD also proposed that
“research ... can make a clear contribution in helping to innovate schools as learning environments, especially in secondary schools in deprived areas.”
That latter point is essential, because the cabinet secretary’s premier education adviser is Education Scotland. It is worrying that Mr Swinney did not cite Education Scotland as a basis for not having the debate today. It gave two and half hours of evidence to the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee some weeks ago. It did not offer any concrete details, statistics or numbers on what is happening across Scotland’s secondary schools on subject choice. The contrast with Professor Jim Scott could not be greater: he said in great detail what was happening. If the Government wishes to take issue with that, it has every right to do so, but Mr Swinney did not mention any of that analysis in his speech today.
On teacher numbers, Education Scotland said:
“It is not our responsibility to know about teacher numbers in each school”
On the impact of deprivation on subject choice, it said that its evidence
“does not indicate that.” —[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 3 April 2019; c 11, 25.]
However, it did not cite any evidence to support that. On the reason behind the fall in the number of pupils who are taking languages, it said twice that it does not have any statistical data. We therefore wonder what it is up to. I believe that the education secretary would be greatly supported if his premier organisation—which is responsible for advice to him, as the person who is responsible for education policy in Scotland—did its job. The trouble at the moment is that not many of us know what that job is.
Today is perhaps the most important day in the Scottish Qualifications Authority exam diet, because today is when the modern studies exams are being sat. I would, therefore, like to start by taking the opportunity to wish every pupil in Scotland who is sitting a qualification in national 5, higher and advanced higher the very best of luck. To their teachers, I say that we value your dedication and commitment to our young people, and we thank you for your public service to education.
I know that members will be shocked to learn this, but I studied my standard grade qualifications some 20 years ago. At the Education and Skills Committee event in Dunfermline on Monday, Iain Gray bravely—and mistakenly—told me that I must have only seven standard grades, because I was not as bright as my youngest sister, who studied nine. In fact, when I was 13 years old, Moira and John Gilruth were told by my careers adviser that I was good at science—in particular, the adviser’s subject, which was of physics.
I thank Iain Gray for that. As a former modern studies teacher, I beg to differ.
My careers adviser suggested that perhaps I might like to become a doctor and so should study physics and chemistry, because—the adviser said—biology is the easy science and I could pick it up in S5.
Moira and John were delighted with the prospect of a Dr Gilruth, so it was science for me. Except that it was not. I promptly dropped both subjects at the end of S4 and chose instead to crash higher history.
In 1999, the offer for everyone at my secondary school was seven subjects. By the time Katie Gilruth came along three years later, the offer was up to eight. By the time the baby—who turned 28 on Monday—came along, pupils were being offered nine subjects. All three of those pupils, who were educated by Fife Council, with three different subject offers, went on to study five highers.
There has always been variation in the number of subjects that have been offered in S4. Suggestions that that is new are simply not true.
“assuming that the child manages to carry forward five subjects, they will be able to get five highers.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 24 April 2019; c 7.]
Therefore, pupils are not being disadvantaged, and Liam Kerr is being misleading in saying that they are. He is trying to suggest that the variance is new, but that is not true.
In this job, I have over the years come to understand that it is really important to consider the views of different generations in Parliament. Yesterday, I learned from my colleague Gordon MacDonald that when he was at school the so-called academic pupils were offered eight ordinary grades, and the less academic were offered six. I will forgive Iain Gray’s slur on this occasion, because he assumed that we still set subject choices according to ability, but that has not been the case for many years.
As the only member who has ever actually delivered a national qualification or had to write a departmental timetable as a faculty head to accommodate SQA hours allocation, I welcome the debate. The fact remains that, if all the teaching hours that are available in one year—that is, 160 hours for the exam requirements to teach each subject—are added up, it is nigh-on impossible to deliver more than five subjects, or perhaps six at a push, in one year. Again, that is not new.
Pupils in Scotland’s schools have been sitting national qualifications since 2013. The first exams took place in 2014, which was five years ago. My job title as a secondee at Education Scotland in 2012 was “national qualifications development officer”. That was seven years ago.
The senior phase is meant to be about depth in learning. Broad general education offers pupils the opportunity to study a wide range of subjects before they specialise in S4. In his evidence to the Education and Skills Committee last week, Professor Jim Scott told us:
“to be honest, the most able pupils will cope in any system: if they are given only six or seven qualifications to work for, they will use the time well and will probably prosper in that system.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 24 April 2019; c 7.]
To turn Professor Scott’s argument on its head, I say that it seems that the least-able pupils will not cope in any system. A system that forces all pupils to study eight or nine subjects will not allow everyone to prosper. Where is the equity in that?
No, thank you. I have taken two interventions already.
Perhaps Eileen Prior of Connect put it best when she said at the Education and Skills Committee this morning that a focus on numbers means that we take our eye off the ball. This is about all our young people doing the best that they can do, which has to be about the best pathways for every young person and not about “badge collecting”, as a headteacher put it to me recently.
I do not want to go back to standard grades. That system let down too many young people and put undue pressure on pupils’ mental health. It forced many people to take subjects until the end of S4. Curriculum for excellence is rooted in personalisation and choice. Curriculum for excellence celebrates the achievements of all our young people—not just those who take five highers. Curriculum for excellence has delivered a record number of exam passes. Curriculum for excellence has increased positive destinations. Curriculum for excellence is narrowing the attainment gap.
It is nothing short of political opportunism for the Tories to come here today to debate an issue on which the Education and Skills Committee has not even concluded its inquiry. I will take no lectures from any MSP on the subject, because not a single MSP has ever taught it.
Before I conclude, I must refer to Iain Gray’s and Tavish Scott’s amendments, which directly reference the 2015 OECD report entitled “Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective”. The OECD said in 2015:
“A context of criticism ... could lead to a public and political debate that misses many of the most important pillars and achievements of CfE. All this would likely unnerve teachers, with negative impact on morale and on the carefully-built union consensus. We think it is important to avoid this negative scenario.”
Here we are, however, and I am thoroughly depressed by content in this afternoon’s debate that has focused on politics over any form of pedagogy or commitment to getting it right for every child.
Curriculum for excellence and all its ambitions and achievements have certainly bypassed a few members in the chamber. Maybe it is time that they went back to school.
What is most galling is that we are once again seeing the SNP Government and its back benchers crying crocodile tears about being dragged to the chamber to answer for their shameful and woeful record in educating our young people, which is the task that their First Minister claims is her Government’s number 1 priority. SNP members want to talk about political opportunism, so why is the Government so keen to avoid discussing and debating education in the chamber in Government time, given that it can magically find 90 minutes for a party-political broadcast on independence?
It is little wonder that parents, teachers and pupils the length and breadth of Scotland can see for themselves what the Scottish National Party’s real priority is. It is certainly not to give young people more choices.
There can be no doubt that the SNP cuts to teacher numbers and Nicola Sturgeon’s flawed reforms have limited choices and opportunities for our young people.
There we have it. Whenever things get tough when it comes to the SNP’s record of the past decade, SNP members look somewhere else for diversions and use smoke-and-mirrors tactics. The truth is that Scotland is missing thousands of teachers, and that there are now no teachers in some subjects in some schools, which means that young people cannot take the subjects of their choice. Young people are being disappointed because limited choice means that they are not able to pursue their ambitions, to fulfil their potential or to go on and study the subjects that they want to study at university. That is not acceptable.
What is most alarming is that opportunities appear to be most limited in our most economically deprived communities and in rural and remote communities outside the central belt. Given that the Government claims that it wants to deliver an education system that is based on excellence and equity, it is a downright disgrace that pupils who are going through the Scottish education system today will be worse off than previous generations. When expert witnesses come before the Education and Skills Committee and talk openly about a generation of pupils who have not received the choices in education that they deserve, alarm bells should be ringing for us all.
If the situation had been created by some kind of unforeseen accident, it would, perhaps, be forgivable. However, the truth is that concerns have been raised consistently over a number of years: the issue has come up not just today, but has been raised in Parliament time and again. What is more, a succession of SNP ministers have attempted to reassure Parliament that narrowing of subject choices either would not happen or—which is worse still—is nothing to worry about. The facts, however, tell a different story.
It seems to be particularly perverse that curriculum changes that were designed with the intention of expanding choice and widening the breath of education have resulted, for many young people, in exactly the opposite, at the time in school that will have the biggest impact on where pupils go next. In the past, the norm was for S4 pupils to sit seven or eight courses. The statistics show that half of schools are offering just six subjects in S4. In deprived areas, just one in ten schools offers the choice of 12 advanced highers. In contrast, in the most affluent areas, seven in 10 schools offer 12 or more. That cannot be right, and it is happening on the cabinet secretary’s watch.
The SNP’s new defence appears to be that Opposition parties are doing down teachers and young people. It claims that we are not pleased that pupils are leaving school with qualifications, and that we are failing to recognise the SNP’s successes and achievements. I say loudly and clearly that that is absolutely not the case. In fact, I will go further and commend the young people and teachers who are having to work twice as hard to realise the pupils’ potential and to access opportunities within a system that no longer works in their best interests.
What is more, the concerns are being raised not just by Opposition parties, education academics and the real experts on the front line—the teachers in our classrooms—but by young people themselves, who are asking where their subject choice is. Year after year, the cabinet secretary and his Government have chosen to ignore those voices, and have instead presided over a decline in subject choice and in the opportunities that are available to the next generation of Scots.
Like Ross Greer, I would feel a lot more confident about the SNP Government’s ability to address the growing problem if ministers would stop burying their heads in the sand and instead admit for once that they might have got things wrong. Until they do, I will make no apology for raising these issues in the chamber—as my Conservative colleagues have been doing, in some cases for a decade.
I read recently in
The Guardian how
“The former education secretary has watched as class sizes have gone up, schools have fallen into disrepair and teachers have covered for cleaners.”
That is education in England. The Tories have no answer to Scottish education
Less than 12 months ago, we in this Parliament were debating subject choice on a motion brought to the chamber by Liz Smith on behalf of the Conservative Party. Today, we are debating the same issue in the middle of an Education and Skills Committee inquiry into this area, which only began just before the Easter recess and has not yet heard from teachers, local authorities, the SQA or the cabinet secretary. Indeed, we heard from parent representative groups only this morning.
Given that third-year pupils have already chosen their subjects for S4, why are we having this debate now instead of waiting until June, when we could have a more informed debate based on the committee’s report and recommendations? Could it be that there is going to be an election in the next few weeks and the Tory party, having dropped to third place in the polls, hopes to make political capital out of an important issue for parents and pupils?
As I said, this morning the committee heard from parent groups, and two issues came across strongly with regard to concerns about subject choice. First, schools have significant autonomy in structuring secondary education and, in many cases, they have failed to communicate to the parents of their new year groups how pupils will progress through the school, starting from the broad general education to the senior phase when examinations take place. Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said that parents do not understand the system, lack basic information on curriculum for excellence in the senior phase and try to relate what is currently happening to their own school experience.
Absolutely. I would support any education campaign to raise awareness of curriculum for excellence throughout the general population.
There is a need to explain to parents what has changed and how it will benefit young people’s education, as schools cannot make decisions in isolation. Back in 2013, on the eve of the introduction of the senior phase into Scottish schools, the BBC said that, previously:
“students studied for seven Standard Grades but local authorities have consulted with schools and parents’ groups and six Nationals is likely to be more common. One part of the thinking behind this is that it can free up the timetable to help students study topics in more depth”.
It also highlighted:
“what really matters is the number of qualifications a youngster has when they leave school—not how many they have at a particular point. They might study more Nationals after S4.”
We need to get that across to parents.
My second point relates to the presentation of subject choice to S3 pupils. The traditional column approach has always caused issues for young people, even back in the 70s when I was at school. For example, pupils had to choose either history or geography, could do only two sciences and so on. That, to me, is what lies at the heart of the problem of subject choice—timetable methodology. The committee’s survey of parents found that the timetabling of subjects, particularly the use of the column system, was the frequently cited cause of a pupil not being able to take all the subjects that they wished to study.
Despite that, a majority of pupils surveyed by the Scottish Youth Parliament agreed that they were able to take all the subjects that they wanted at school. Connect, which was formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, highlighted in its submission that there are different approaches to timetabling that better meet the needs of young people. It suggested that pupils should be
“free to select their choices and rate them by preference” and that subject teaching should then be
“matched to demand and a flexible approach adopted to class and year structures so that different levels may be taught together, with young people from different year groups.”
The important point is to give pupils as much free choice as possible in subject decisions throughout the senior phase, whether that is in S4, S5 or S6. As Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland stated, it is about what qualifications pupils leave with, not the order that they take them in.
Scotland’s school leavers have higher achievement levels and more of them go to positive destinations than at any time during the previous 20 years. In 2006-07, 71 per cent of pupils got a level 5 qualification—a credit in the old standard grade—or better. Although we cannot make a direct comparison, last year, 86 per cent got a level 5 qualification or better. For highers, we are again unable to make a direct comparison but, last year, 62 per cent of school leavers left with a qualification at level 6 or better, which was up from 42 per cent in 2006-07. Back in 2009, 22 per cent of pupils got five highers or more; last year, the figure was more than 30 per cent.
There has been concern for years about the attainment gap between pupils with different backgrounds. Education Scotland in its evidence to the committee highlighted that 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.
Here we are in another education debate with our Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills again taking a troubling but increasingly common approach in listening to the arguments: he holds the line, seeks to shoot the messenger and quotes carefully selected statistics to make a case. The kindest construction that I would use to describe that is that he is largely in denial about many of the areas of concern about the education experience of too many of our young people.
I say in all seriousness to colleagues across the chamber that belligerence is not a substitute for being accountable for our responsibilities.
This is another education debate in Opposition time. I have lost count of the times that I have asked the cabinet secretary to use Scottish Government time to debate fully the range of issues in education. I hate to think that political opportunism has meant that we have not had those debates in Government time.
I will explore some of the evidence that has been given to the Education and Skills Committee and which has been heard elsewhere about the perhaps unintended consequences of decisions on subject choices and of the local pressure on resources, notably teachers and support staff, for some of the most disadvantaged young people in our education system. We heard troubling and compelling evidence from Professor Jim Scott that the way that the curriculum for excellence is being implemented means that the system is less fair for those who are most disadvantaged and that they are paying the price of less equity because of deliberate choices by Government, Education Scotland, local authorities and schools. It is simply not good enough to try to shrug off that evidence.
We have heard evidence of routine greater use of multilevel teaching in classes, increased need and a lack of provision to allow young people to travel to college and other schools to access particular subjects. Subject choice is more restricted. That is not necessarily about just the number; it is also about the range of subjects. For me, the most concerning issue is the increase in the number of young people who are leaving with no external examination qualification whatever.
All of those things that have been highlighted impact disproportionately on the poorest and most disadvantaged young people in the system. Decisions that are now being played out disproportionately impact on those who are already disproportionately battling inequality and injustice. We know, for example, that 75 per cent of looked-after young people leave at the end of S4. In what way is a curriculum that requires a young person to be there for S4, S5 and S6 to access all of its benefits tailored to the needs of looked-after young people? It is not tailored to their needs at all. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that Education Scotland has not only done no equality impact assessment on the choices being made, but continues blithely to argue that there is no cause for concern?
I have to be honest. It is the complacency and defensiveness that gets to me—the “Nothing to see here” and “They would say that” approach. All this, while alarm bells are ringing and serious figures in education with no political dog in the fight are expressing their concerns. Education Scotland gives advice to ministers, inspects its own work and does not consider that teaching a class with advanced higher, higher, national 4 and national 5 pupils in the same room presents any difficulties whatever. The most advantaged children are not being taught in those circumstances; the most disadvantaged are. That is unacceptable.
I get that many people simply resist change and misunderstand the decisions that are being made on the curriculum. I hear the pushy parents’ explanation that we should not focus just on qualifications—that it is not just about the exams. Even if all of that is true, there is still some truth in the problems that we are discussing today. The problem, which is deeper and cannot be wished away, is that there are fewer subjects, a narrower range of choices and further disadvantage of those who are most vulnerable.
The easy bit for the cabinet secretary is to delete the concerns in a parliamentary motion. It is a great deal harder to delete the consequences of his choices from the life chances of young people across Scotland. The cabinet secretary says that we must wait until the inquiry completes its work. Well, I seriously hope that when the cabinet secretary sees the evidence, he will stop trying to explain it away. He needs to listen, understand and act. Instead of testing the evidence against his own view, he should acknowledge that there may possibly be things going wrong in the system that he did not intend but which are having direct consequences for many of our young people.
This is not just about the timing or the parliamentary process—reasons that the cabinet secretary has flung in to justify not supporting the motion. This is an issue of the responsibility of serious Government to confront and respond to what is happening in the real world at its hand. It is not good enough to respond with cheap points about process. We have to look at what people across the country are saying about the possible damage that we are doing to the future of far too many of our young people.
As many members have said, the Education and Skills Committee is in the middle of taking evidence on this topic, so I have to wonder why the Conservative Party has decided to have this debate at this time.
I was not going to use the next bit of my speech, but I thank Oliver Mundell for giving me the opportunity to do so. For the Tories to shed crocodile tears about inequity is ignorance at best and sheer hypocrisy at worst. If that was not the case, the debate would be about the causes of poverty and a call for this Parliament to urge Westminster to scrap some of its more damaging policies and grant this Parliament all the powers that it requires to deal with the problem in its totality.
It is absolutely outrageous to make that kind of point. Does James Dornan not accept that giving people an inadequate education—an education that is not as good quality as the education received by their peers in more affluent communities—will have an impact on their life chances?
Yes. I would agree with that point if I thought that it was the case.
At First Minister’s question time last week, the First Minister was right to point out that a record number of young people are leaving school with five highers or more and that the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest is narrowing. That is thanks to policies such as the pupil equity fund, which allows headteachers to use a financial settlement to suit their establishment’s particular needs, instead of having a blanket rule of practice with no flexibility. It is work like that that will truly allow headteachers to prioritise the needs of pupils in their area, taking into account socioeconomic backgrounds and particular social challenges.
The SNP Government is absolutely committed to the needs of vulnerable children and there are clearly some young people who will need more targeted support than others, for example those coming from a care-experienced background.
The Government has already recognised that that demographic may need further investment of £33 million from the attainment Scotland fund, which will offer targeted initiatives, activities and educational resources aimed at improving the educational outcomes for that disadvantaged group of young people.
I am grateful. Does the member recognise the argument that
I was making? It is not about what the Tories are doing at Westminster, although I condemn their project in terms of the cuts to public services. The danger is that what we are doing now through some of the choices that have been made around the curriculum for excellence is—whether unintended or otherwise—amplifying inequality in our communities. We need to address that, because kids in the communities that we represent who are disadvantaged are being disadvantaged more by the choices that are being made.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I would be happy to agree with Johann Lamont if we had gone through the process that we are in the middle of. If, after the committee’s debates and discussions, she were to come back with evidence that proved that, it would be very difficult for us on the SNP benches to say otherwise. I am not saying that the speeches that others have made have been for political reasons, but today’s motion has been brought for nothing but political reasons. There is no other possible reason for it.
I can see that some of my Conservative colleagues want me to talk specifically and solely about subject choices, but having served as the convener of the Education and Skills Committee for some time, I am more than aware that a child’s education is not quite so one dimensional, which is another reason why I am so surprised that Liz Smith has brought this debate at such an early stage, before she has heard the vast bulk of the evidence. She has heard time and time again that the education of children in different socioeconomic areas is complex; the rest of us know that too.
In a debate last year, I had the joy of sharing some stories about young people who had achieved outstanding results in their exams, but what surprised me about many of the stories was the element of cross-establishment working between schools in my Glasgow Cathcart constituency. Many kids travel between schools to participate in various subjects, with excellent outcomes. Schools benefit from offering a well-attended subject, and pupils are able to utilise the flexible approach to study the subjects that are most suitable to their needs.
In 2017, one such pupil in S4 attended Holyrood secondary for her higher Italian and King’s Park secondary for her higher English for speakers of other languages, while being taught higher Spanish and national 5 maths at her own school, St Margaret Mary’s. That is the point of curriculum for excellence; it is about a tailored educational system that has a flexible approach to learning.
I do not dispute for a minute that some parents may have concerns over six subjects being offered in S4, but I repeat the First Minister’s words form last Thursday: higher education does not simply finish in S4, and a wide range of subjects are open to pupils as they progress through S5 and S6. As the cabinet secretary said earlier, the broad general education has been improved up to S3. What matters are the qualifications and awards with which pupils leave school, not just the subjects that they study in S4. While the Government has promised to monitor the Reform Scotland report and the Education and Skills Committee’s review, it is absolutely right that we know that education does not end in S4.
The evidence says that more young people are leaving school with qualifications, with five highers or more and going into positive destinations, including university.
I want to take a minute to examine the wording of the Tory motion.
The motion refers to the
“inequity that exists between schools” in more deprived communities. I represent a constituency that has a number of those more deprived communities and, on a recent visit, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, visited a school in Glasgow and asked the children, “Who should help the poor people?” He was answered simply by one child, “The rich people.” A boy, John, was in the garden and said, “I got hungry because I was smelling other people’s food. The most unfair thing is that Government knows what families are going through and it decides not to do anything about it.” That is a perfect example of the inequity that exists between schools in more affluent areas and those in more deprived communities and which clearly affects educational performance.
I say to Scotland’s Tories, do not insult this Parliament by telling us how to educate the poor, tell us how you will fight alongside us to ensure that those children are not poor in the first place.
I thank my colleague Liz Smith for bringing the debate to the chamber. It is so important, because the options that are available to Scotland’s children as they progress through school are sadly narrowing.
The curriculum for excellence was introduced with the intention of improving the Scottish education system, which was renowned internationally as one of the best. Unfortunately, evidence has shown that the CFE’s implementation has been lacking in accountability, communication and credible management. What is worse is that, so far, the response from the SNP and Education Scotland to that evidence has been utter denial.
In recent years, there has been a narrowing of subject choice for children in the senior phase of their education. On average, pupils who enter S4 now take fewer subjects than they did before the curriculum for excellence was introduced. It is abundantly clear to most members in the chamber what effect limiting their horizons can have on a child.
How has that happened? Part of the transition from the old system to the new one involved changing the structure through which education is delivered. Previously, under the two, two, two system, children in S3 and S4 could take a breadth of subjects before focusing on their highers in fifth year. Now that we have switched to the three, three system, with the first three years providing what is known as a broad general education, we face problems. Evidence that has been submitted to the Education and Skills Committee highlights the disjointedness between the first three years and the new senior phase. The SQA has said that its qualifications, which start in S4, require 160 hours of teaching per subject for pupils to pass. Previously, it was possible for that time to be split over two years, but schools are now cramming those 160 hours into one year, which means that the number of subject slots has been squeezed down from seven or eight to six and even, in some cases, five.
I have heard members say that we are focusing too much on S4 and that subjects are available throughout the whole senior phase. I say to them that the idea that a child who got a flavour of Spanish in S1 to S3, but who was then forced to drop it because there were only six slots in S4, would somehow pick it up again later in the senior phase is totally unrealistic.
We are calling for a review of the structure.
I want to turn to a particularly worrying development. We have heard increased reports of multilevel classes. Science teachers, for example, have pointed out that, despite the stark differences in content between the national 4 qualification in physics, the national 5 qualification in physics and the higher physics qualification, they are often expected to teach all three in one class time slot.
At last week’s meeting of the Education and Skills Committee, I asked the panel whether courses were built to sustain that kind of learning. William Hardie highlighted the impracticality of teaching what, in some cases, are very different courses in the same class and expecting the same quality of education, Dr Alan Britton said that no teacher would choose to do that and Professor Jim Scott said that the extent of tri-level teaching was worrying. However, when Education Scotland was asked about the issue, when it gave evidence to the committee, at one point its strategic director said that children could receive the same educational experience in a multilevel class as they would in a same-level class. I find that response quite surprising.
That brings me on to the final section of my speech. The reduction in subject choice for Scottish children upsets me, but what really angers me is the frank denial by the SNP and Education Scotland of the seriousness of the issue. In the same committee meeting that I have just mentioned, Education Scotland suggested that the narrowing of subject choice was in fact a deliberate decision, so that children could focus on a depth of learning, but educational experts have made it very clear that that narrowing is an unintentional consequence of the curriculum for excellence.
Similarly, in responding to Ross Greer on the sad reality that some children have to travel from one school to another to take certain subjects, Education Scotland’s strategic director claimed that the motivation that travelling to another school to take such a class provides more than makes up for missing any other activities, such as sport, drama and music. That very statement is a shameful denial of the problems.
At last week’s First Minister’s question time, the denials kept coming. The First Minister was questioned on the topic of subject choice nine times by five different MSPs from across the chamber and, in each answer, she repeated the same statistic, irrespective of the question.
The SNP is acting as though there is no problem. There is a problem. I speak for parents, teachers and educationalists around Scotland: we need to address this head on. No more denials, deflections or downright ridiculous excuses. Let us address the problem before we fail a generation.
There is a lot on which we can agree today—that
“education should be based on ... excellence and equity ... that all young people ... should be afforded the best possible education at all levels” and that
“these principles are enshrined in the policy aims of the curriculum for excellence”.
Those points all appear in the motion and are not amended.
Our focus today is on subject choice. The Conservatives want young people to have as wide a choice as possible in each school. That is a narrow topic and, although they are entitled to debate it, I will also make some wider but related points on the issue of school pupils and subject choices. The number of subjects that are available in a school is important, but so is the question of what those subjects are. We must ask how and why pupils choose subjects or would like to choose subjects that are not available.
As a society, how much should we try to influence pupils? How much should their choice be completely free?
The Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, of which I am a member, is concluding an inquiry into the construction sector. Prior to that, we published a report on the gender pay gap. In both those inquiries, it has been blatantly obvious that we are not attracting enough women into STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects and are not attracting enough men into childcare and primary teaching. Efforts have been made to change that, but success has been limited. For whatever reason, pupils are still choosing careers that follow traditional gendered lines and that is reflected in their subject choices at school. We are all struggling to know how to change that.
The SQA tells us that, at higher level in 2017-18, 90 per cent of those doing engineering science and 84 per cent of those doing computing science were male, and 97 per cent of those doing fashion and textile technology and 97 per cent of those doing childcare and development were female.
Families, peers and teachers have an influence on the choices of school subjects and careers that our young people make. Frankly, we need our schools sometimes to challenge the assumptions that are around our young people and which they pick up from elsewhere. We all know some of the wrong assumptions that are floating around: that construction always involves being out in a muddy building site; that engineering is a very physical job and better for boys; that medicine and law are better jobs than engineering;·that, in an ideal world, everyone would go to university; and that the best people do not go into construction. Those are all wrong assumptions and they must be challenged.
I agree with John Mason that we must challenge those assumptions.
If the evidence to the Education and Skills Committee concludes with a view that confirms Professor Jim Scott’s position—that the most disadvantaged are now more disadvantaged than they were before—will John Mason act to get the Scottish Government to address that problem?
That is hypothetical. One of the points for debate today is what the Education and Skills Committee will come up with as a conclusion.
By way of example, one of the big challenges in my constituency, which, as members know, is quite mixed, is parental involvement. One of the schools that are doing good work in that area has used some of the extra pupil equity funding money to involve families. When families are more involved in education, that makes as big a difference as other things.
My main argument is that this is wider than just the number of subjects; there are a lot of other factors.
I will speak a little more and then let the member in.
To continue my theme, recently, during Scottish apprenticeship week, I visited an excellent company that provides electrical and other services in my constituency. I met two very able apprentices—one older and one younger. It was particularly interesting listening to the younger apprentice when he spoke of his experience at school—I do not know which school he attended—where the emphasis seemed to be on going to university and where the impression that was given to pupils was that everything other than university was second rate.
We need to help our young people understand that such thinking is wrong. We use the term “positive destinations”, which is meant to include a range of destinations but, in practice, we sometimes send out the signal that academic destinations are best. However, the roofer who fixes my tenement roof is just as important and valuable as a lawyer or accountant. If 100 per cent of our young people went to university, that would be a failure for us as a society. Each young person should of course have an equal opportunity to go to university no matter their background, but it is not the right path for every young person.
It is good that we have a tradition of a broad general education in Scotland. I studied Latin up to fourth year and chemistry up to fifth, but neither appears to have done me much good since. The only subject that I enjoyed at school was maths, but I guess that it would not have been healthy for me to study only that, and I was forced to study other subjects.
As a society, we have a responsibility to encourage our young people into sectors in which there are likely to be skills shortages in the future and, preferably, in which there are good pay and career opportunities.
I studied accountancy at university because I wanted to become an accountant. I did not choose the subject in some random way, although I did not know much about it, as accountancy was not available as a subject at my school.
I agree that the number of subjects that are available for an individual young person to choose from is important, but it is only one angle on the topic of subjects and choices. We need to take a much wider look at the question of which subjects are being chosen and why, and we need to consider whether those are the best subjects for the individual young person and for society as a whole.
I echo Ross Greer’s call for more time for this debate. The cabinet secretary’s point about the stage of the committee process is beneath him. The evidence that the committee heard was so stark and shocking that it shows that the Parliament is fleet of foot to be looking at what has been learned. If the cabinet secretary wanted to devote a whole week of parliamentary time to this important topic, I am sure that that would be welcomed.
I am as concerned as any Opposition member about the narrowing choice of subjects at S4 level in schools. I was quite taken with Jenny Gilruth’s speech in which she gave us her family history on that issue. If I heard correctly, she said that she and her sisters were offered seven, eight and nine choices of subjects, but she then told us that she was satisfied that pupils are now being offered six choices. If I understood her correctly to say that not many of us understand the education process as she does, can she tell us why state schools in some of the most affluent areas of Scotland offer pupils the opportunity to study seven or eight qualifications?
I made the point that there has always been variation in the system, going back to standard grades 20 years ago.
On deprivation, we need to look at a broader range of qualifications. For example, in a speech in the Scottish Government debate yesterday, Daniel Johnson told us that he supported
“the wider definitions of education”—[
, 30 April 2019; c 46.]
I do not disagree with anything that they said. Presiding Officer, I hope that I get that time back.
The disparity that we see nationally is worrying. It simply cannot be right that pupils in wealthier areas of the country have a greater range of choices than those in other communities.
Schools are clear that they offer a limited range of topics because that is all that they can afford with the staffing and resources that they have. The cut of more than 3,000 teachers in Scotland since the SNP came to power is one of the Government’s greatest failings.
My city of Dundee has been hit hard by teacher cuts. Since 2009, when the SNP took control of Dundee City Council, we have lost 183 teachers in total, with more losses to come, and 160 of those teachers—a massive number—have been lost from our secondary schools. Things are so bad that schools struggle to recruit teachers for core subjects such as English, maths and science. Further, in a city that is already struggling with attainment, the SNP is planning to cut a further £3 million from the education budget. On top of that, teachers are under further pressure because of the move to the almost universally unpopular faculty heads management structure. With schools being placed under such pressure, the last thing that our pupils need is a restriction in subject choices.
In my region, the city of Dundee really needs the opportunities that are offered by a good, solid education. In a survey that was conducted by the Reform Scotland think tank, five of Dundee’s eight secondary schools confirmed that they offer only six subjects in S4. The three schools that did not respond to the survey have offered the same choice of six subjects over the past few years. Then we discover that it is the policy of the SNP-led Dundee City Council to offer only six subjects. Therefore, when the cabinet secretary talks about supporting headteachers and variation, I say to him loudly and clearly—I hope that he is listening—that those options are not available to pupils, parents, schools or headteachers in Dundee because the council has clearly said that its policy will be to offer six subjects in S4 right across the city. Its S1 to S6 curriculum guidelines state:
“The senior phase model that we have adopted as a city allows for vertical and lateral progression ... Pupils can study a maximum of 6 subjects at National 4 and 5 in S4”.
We should be under no illusion: such a restriction limits pupils’ choices and outcomes. I repeat my earlier point: I do not understand the SNP’s assertion that a narrowing of the curriculum is good, when we can see the most affluent areas of the country offering their pupils the opportunity to take seven or eight qualifications in S4.
The submission that Professor Jim Scott of the University of Dundee gave to the Education and Skills Committee was quite striking. His initial research indicates that, in an environment in which only six choices are allowed, the average number of qualifications attempted is only five. That is worrying and it is a point that is yet to be addressed in the debate. Children who have ambitions to study medicine or engineering are being left with no choice but to give up the benefits of arts subjects and to start specialising early in order to gain the qualifications that they will need for their chosen careers.
As Professor Scott said in his submission, any significant reduction in the uptake of modern languages, expressive arts and the STEM subjects has the potential to impair the academic, scientific, cultural and business-related capacity of Scotland. Every member in the chamber knows that today’s debate is about education, but we should remember that it is also about our wider economic capabilities. We know that our children are being offered limited subject choices not because the Scottish Government believes that that is right—although today’s debate might contest that—but because it is too set in its ways and too arrogant to look objectively at the situation that is in front of us. The cabinet secretary must act now to turn around the collapse in budgets, the crisis in recruitment and the narrowing of subject chances and life choices that SNP mismanagement is inflicting on our schools.
“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.”—[
, 23 May 2018; c 34.]
That was the opening of my speech in last year’s debate on this subject. I am even more dismayed that we are still talking about the same issues, and that understanding of curriculum for excellence does not seem to have made its way through to some parts of the chamber.
In 2012, Terry Lanagan of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland told the Education and Culture Committee:
“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 the experiences and outcomes in broad general education.”
It was always the intention—and it was the aim of the work that was done following criticism of the previous system—that the approach should be about the depth, and not the breadth, of learning that should exist for young people. Although I agree that the evidence shows that the number of subjects that a pupil can take has reduced in certain areas, I have yet to see evidence that that causes young people any disadvantage. I will use the evidence that the Education and Skills Committee has already heard to demonstrate that.
However, first I return to what has been said in the past. Terry Lanagan also said:
“The two plus 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.”—[
Official Report, Education and Culture Committee
, 28 February 2012; c 795-6.]
One of the criticisms of the previous system was about the two-term dash to highers. Curriculum for excellence offers pupils an opportunity to go straight to higher courses or to start in S3 their work for national 4 and 5. That is the whole basis for adapting and personalising the system to young people.
I heard the comparisons with the private sector, but pupils at some private schools did not even sit standard grades, as they went straight to highers. There have always been differing views on how the issue should be taken forward.
The most important comment that I want to highlight was made by Larry Flanagan, who said:
“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 was supported by all parties in the Parliament.
I want to say a little about the evidence. I am a little concerned that we are having this debate when we are only part of the way through our important committee inquiry, because the implication could be that people have made up their minds before all the evidence has been heard. It is really important that we listen to all of it, so I want to balance some of the things that have been said about the evidence.
Dr Shapira was mentioned by both Liz Smith and Iain Gray. I absolutely agree that there is a narrowing and that it has been linked to Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas. However, when Dr Shapira was pressed on what evidence there is of disadvantage to young people, she said:
“The question is ... do we have evidence that the narrowed choice has a negative effect? Overall, we will have to wait and see, and ... look at the trends in a couple more years’ time.”—[
Education and Skills Committee
, 19 September 2018; c 47.]
Although I get and probably share the concern of the members around the chamber who have mentioned the issue, I have yet to see how we are disadvantaging our young people, especially given the context of increasing university and college admissions, which were up by 4 per cent last year. The information on attainment and leaver destinations shows that 92.9 per cent of our pupils are in positive destinations, and that figure has gone up, too. I share Labour’s concern about zero-hours contracts being counted in those destinations, but they account for only a small percentage of our young people’s positive destinations.
“An individual’s ability to present a good range of qualifications is core to university entry. One of the good things about curriculum for excellence, and something that resonates strongly with what we are trying to do at university, is that through the experience of curriculum for excellence pupils develop the broader attributes that I referred to as well as subject knowledge. That helps to create people who have a rounded expertise as well as subject knowledge. I ... support that intention.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 3 April 2019; c 45.]
Universities are looking for experience that is not just about what pupils have achieved in terms of a certain number of qualifications. It is about the bag of qualifications that they leave S5 or S6 with in the final stages of curriculum for excellence.
We have heard a lot about opportunities and choices. Joan Mackay talked about creativity in CFE and gave an example of pupils attaining HNC qualifications, which are at a higher level, at Dundee and Angus College, freeing up a computing science teacher to develop more courses to meet more youngsters’ needs. That is an example of the advantages that exist.
Although I share the concerns, I remain to be convinced that the problem that members have highlighted exists. I look forward to concluding our committee’s work in the area.
Is it not a somewhat extraordinary situation when the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills says that Parliament should not debate education? Education should never be off limits for members in this chamber. It is the job of Parliament to debate serious issues, and this is a serious issue. If was not a serious issue, the Education and Skills Committee would not be looking at it and we would not have lodged the motion that Liz Smith lodged for the debate today.
In March 2013, the commission on school reform, on which I was lucky enough to sit, published “By diverse means”, a detailed document that was a serious attempt to suggest ways in which we could improve Scotland’s educational performance. However, nothing has happened since then to improve the country’s educational performance.
Our paper started off with two quotes.
“By diverse means we arrive at the same end”, and:
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
In other words, trust people to do a job and allow them to do it in different ways.
It was clear then, and it is clear now, that the education system in Scotland is too uniform. That is why the Scottish Conservatives have been arguing for years that we need greater diversity in the system, and to empower headteachers properly. Curriculum for excellence was meant to take the shackles off. It should have led to greater choice, not less.
Last week, subject choice was brought up several times at First Minister’s questions and, frankly, the First Minister floundered. I looked around the chamber and spotted Mike Russell on the front bench. He is a very bright man, obviously well educated, and I could not help wondering whether a young Mike Russell going through school now would emerge with the breadth of knowledge that the current Mike Russell has. I doubt it. The same could be said for other equally well-educated members, such as Liz Smith, Iain Gray and many others. We have a narrowing of the curriculum and we have kids being taught subjects at different levels in the same class. No one can possibly argue that that is a good thing.
We have already heard about Professor Jim Scott’s evidence. He said that the narrowing of subject choice was like a virus that
“spread ... round the north of Scotland” with
“outbreaks in the south and south-west”.
He warned that we are
“in danger of creating a generation of people who have not had a good experience in education.”
He also said that he found it
“difficult to tell” the Education and Skills Committee
“that anything in this is improving.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 24 April 2019; c 2, 17, 5.]
Professor Scott identified five areas in which Scottish education is struggling: modern languages; information and communication technology; arts; technologies; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. There is a postcode lottery throughout Scotland and within authorities.
I asked the council in South Lanarkshire, where I live, for the figures—
No—I will give the figures for South Lanarkshire, which is an SNP council.
The number of choices offered at S4 goes from nine at Stonelaw high school, to eight at Trinity, St Andrew’s and St Bride’s and Holy Cross, to seven at Calderglen, Calderside, Duncanrig, Larkhall, Lesmahagow, St John Ogilvie, Strathaven and Uddingston, and down to six at Biggar, Carluke, Hamilton grammar and Lanark. That is all the high schools—and it is quite a range .
I should sound a word of caution here, and the cabinet secretary may agree with me. Although Stonelaw shows nine choices and in theory a pupil could access nine national qualifications, that also captures activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh and saltire awards that pupils can do within the timetable, whereas Hamilton grammar school shows only six choices, which does not reflect the wider range of options available.
Nevertheless, we have to ask why a kid at Biggar should not have the same opportunities as someone at St Andrew’s and St Bride’s in East Kilbride—or perhaps the question is why they do not have the same opportunities. Teacher shortages are a large part of the problem, as Jenny Marra said. We do not have enough people to teach across the wide variety of subjects that could be offered. We have known about that for years, yet it seems to me that nothing has been done.
Last week, the First Minister trumpeted exam results as evidence that curriculum for excellence is working. She was kind of missing the point, because is it really working? The percentage of youngsters leaving school with no qualifications declined across almost all authorities from 2009-10 to 2012-13, but, unfortunately, as Iain Gray said, the opposite is true since the introduction of curriculum for excellence. The least able appear to be suffering the most under curriculum for excellence.
I thought that Aberdeenshire Council summed up the situation quite well in its submission to the committee. It said:
“Clearly, limitations in subject choice restrict the choices a pupil can make and can lead them into choosing subjects in which they have little interest. This can affect their motivation and overall attainment.”
The Scottish Parliament information centre paper for this week’s committee meeting confirmed that. Restricting subject choice leads to kids sitting subjects that they are just not interested in. That can affect them for the rest of their lives, and that is why the debate matters.
I think that we all agree that Scottish education should be based on the principles of excellence and equity, and it is of course important to be assured that that is the case.
The cabinet secretary and colleagues have made observations about the timing of the debate—not about debating education but about the timing of this specific debate. Choices have already been made for next year and the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry is not finished. Those are facts.
Viewers of this debate might wonder whether the sensible and respectful way to proceed would have been to let the committee do its job and have a more informed debate in June, once the inquiry has finished. The Education and Skills Committee has yet to hear from and, crucially, question a range of important witnesses, including representatives of the professional associations, directors of education, local government and, indeed, the Scottish Government.
In everything that we do in this place, we must properly consider and scrutinise evidence. I sincerely hope that we can have the opportunity to return to this matter when the committee has done its job and had the opportunity to review the full range of evidence and its report is available to all of us.
The purpose of the curriculum is to provide our 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.
Under curriculum for excellence, there are no set notions about the number or types of qualifications taken at each senior phase. The guiding principle is that qualifications are taken at the appropriate stage for the young person over the three years of the senior phase. It is for schools to make decisions about the best model for their young people and, of course, that will lead to variation.
National guidelines encourage flexibility and enable schools to consider alternative approaches that best meet pupils’ needs. That is right. For example, that might include following courses at college, through consortium arrangements with other schools and through digital learning.
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.
Responding to the committee, one local authority reported that
“The greater flexibility of the timetable has been matched by increasing option choice: alongside traditional courses, schools now offer wider achievement opportunities ranging from vocational qualifications to leadership and employability awards, many of which are also certificated, and courses offering different types of work related learning.”
Importantly, it also stated:
“While the curriculum offer has been changing, examination performance has held up, continuing to improve steadily as before.”
That matters. The qualifications and awards that young people leave school with matter—it is not just about what they study in S4.
Does the member share my concern that an increasing number of young people are leaving with no qualification whatsoever and that it will be disadvantaged young people who are suffering most?
If that were the case, I would share that concern—of course I would.
The percentage of pupils who get qualifications at level 5 and above is up. The percentage of pupils who leave with highers is up. The wealth-related attainment gap for higher level is at an all-time low. A record number of school leavers are in higher education. When we look at attainment when pupils leave school, we find two things: attainment overall is up since 2009-10 and the gap between the most and least deprived is narrowing.
Curriculum for excellence has transformed learning experiences for children and young people across Scotland. It recognises that children are unique and empowers teachers to create learning that makes sure that every child gets the support, stretch and challenge that they deserve. It is the right approach for Scotland.
The OECD has endorsed Scotland’s curriculum, saying that it rests on
“a very contemporary view of knowledge and skills and on widely accepted tenets of what makes for powerful learning.”
The curriculum for excellence has gone through a significant period of initial implementation, which brought with it a period of intensive change, in particular for secondary schools. The priority now should be to allow the new curriculum to bed in, to make appropriate adjustments but to avoid the type of wholesale curriculum change that would simply increase the workload for teachers.
As I said, we all agree that Scottish education should be based on the principles of excellence and equity, and we need to be assured that that is the case. Let us do that the right way. In everything that we do in this place, we must properly consider and scrutinise evidence. I repeat my hope that we can have the opportunity to return to this matter when the Education and Skills Committee has had the opportunity to review the full range of evidence and its report is available to all of us.
Ruth Maguire and Clare Adamson talked about the choice and personalisation that the curriculum for excellence allows. That is a good thing. I am very much in favour of choice and personalisation in our schools, and I have been for a long time. Decades ago, I was sitting in a school in Mozambique, speaking to a colleague who was a Soviet teacher, and he asked me how our schools were organised. I knew how Soviet schools were organised. Every pupil followed exactly the same course and subjects as every other pupil in the year. In fact, across the entire Soviet Union, on any particular day, they would all be studying the same page in their textbooks, and, in order to move on to the next year, they had to pass all their subjects. He explained that to me, which I knew, and I explained to him that, in the schools in which I was used to working, pupils studied the same courses for a couple of years and then, after that, they chose their own personalised curriculum. He looked at me and said, “That is just not possible.” He thought that that was a degree of personalisation that was just impractical and that you could not run or organise a school on that basis. I tried to convince him that it was possible, but could not do so.
I was struck by the differences between the two systems, although, in a sense, they had similar objectives. Both were seeking to deliver the principle of equality. The Soviet one did so by giving everyone the same course, and the Scottish one did so by allowing individuals to create the curriculum that suited them. I know that I favoured the Scottish approach and was proud of it, even though I could not get my colleague to understand why it worked. Indeed, later, when I returned to teaching in a Scottish school, I was part of improving the system further with regard to personalisation, when we introduced the standard grades, which were very much a teacher-led innovation. Nobody is really arguing against any of those principles, and the curriculum for excellence is supposed to improve things in that regard.
We have talked a little bit about the evidence that the Education and Skills Committee has already received. Jenny Gilruth mentioned that, on Monday, we held focus groups with teachers and parents in Dunfermline. Mr Allan and I participated in a striking focus group with around 10 teachers. It was clear that they did not feel that they were in the lead with regard to what was happening in their schools. Some of them talked about their subjects being pushed out of the curriculum. Part of that was because of the creation of more options for the young people in their schools, but it was also because of the narrowing of the number of choices that pupils could make. They spoke particularly vociferously about the consequence that has come about because of the three-year senior phase, which is more multilevel teaching.
Earlier today, in education questions, the Deputy First Minister said that, in his day at school, there was multilevel teaching. That is absolutely true. However, I say to him that there is a big difference between general and credit classes being taught together, with the chance of young people moving between the two levels, and what is happening in schools now. In many instances, according to those teachers, that involves four-level teaching, with national 4, national 5, higher and advanced higher all being taught at the same time in the same classroom, in a class of up to 30 pupils. That is a different animal altogether.
Mr Gray has generously reduced my age significantly, because I was not in the system when general and credit were going through; I predate that time.
We must also reflect the point that Mr Dornan made about the range of options that are now available for collaboration between schools to deliver a broader range of advanced higher opportunities for young people, where the number of young people in individual schools simply cannot justify the creation of a specific course in an individual school. However, the curriculum offer is still there for young people.
As I said, that was the teachers’ experience of what is happening in their schools. I do not want to lose time for that intervention.
The biggest difference that the teachers described was in the curricular structure in their schools, which was about far more than just the fact that some schools offer six, some seven and some eight subjects in S4. The truth is that a number of those schools are still working to a two, two, two model. Most of them said that pupils made their course choices at the end of S2, not at the end of S3. One described their curricular model as two plus one, two plus one.
It was clear that those teachers did not feel that they had had any part in the design of those structures, which were management led and involved decisions that—in their view—constantly changed. That did not leave them feeling empowered, but rather embattled. They did not feel any more empowered than the teachers in Dundee who Jenny Marra spoke about, where the curricular structure is imposed across the local authority from the centre.
I accept that that evidence was from a small group, but it was powerful and it reflects other evidence that the committee has heard. Earlier today, during portfolio questions on education and skills, the Deputy First Minister tried—I think—to characterise concern about these issues as “moral panic”. This afternoon, he has certainly characterised it as “political opportunism.” It is not. Hearing these stories from our schools creates a moral and political imperative—not a panic, but an imperative—for us to listen and respond, and to do that in a serious way. That is all that the motion and amendment ask this evening, and that is why they should be supported.
On the point that Iain Gray made latterly, my reference to “moral panic” was a quotation from Professor Mark Priestley—an informed commentator who has been cited extensively in the debate and on this question. I cited Professor Priestley because I felt that it would help us to conclude that we need to consider the issue seriously.
I have said that I am perfectly willing to consider the issue. However, I do not think that we can do it justice in an afternoon debate—especially not when the Education and Skills Committee is taking evidence taking on the subject which, as we have heard in speeches today, covers disputed territory about the right way to proceed. I will talk about a number of different areas of disputed evidence in the course of my summing-up speech.
I know that there was broad political support for the design of curriculum for excellence.
We were also reminded by Gordon MacDonald, who read from a BBC report from 2013, of the curriculum model that is being challenged today, which is a combination of particular subjects and a broader general education.
As I have consciously stressed to Parliament, that model has been deeper and more extensive, and has been delivering more breadth to young people in Scotland, as was envisaged at the time of the creation of curriculum for excellence. It is therefore not a particularly surprising point.
I will touch on a few issues that have emerged in the debate. The first is the question about whether there should be prescription from the centre or local discretion. I think that colleagues know that I am very much on the side of local discretion. I found it odd that Graham Simpson talked through and almost attacked the notion of local distinctions among the schools of South Lanarkshire. He seemed to criticise such distinctions’ existence.
Allow me to finish my point.
If we are to have a system that empowers schools—that is very much what I want, and it is what I thought the Conservatives wanted—we must be prepared to tolerate distinctions and differences among individual schools. Otherwise, we will end up not quite with the model that Mr Gray talked about in his Mozambique example, but edging towards that, instead of having a system of school empowerment and teacher agency. I want to ensure that that is at the heart of our reforms.
Does the cabinet secretary recognise that there are differences between schools because people have made choices, and that there is a pattern in which it looks like there are differences between schools that are based on parental income and disadvantage? Is that not worrying?
That is worrying, and my amendment seeks to acknowledge that point. That is part of the evidence that I am concerned about; I want to explore that, and I am doing so. As a Parliament, we need a considered debate about the issues, and we need to decide where we are sitting. That is why I want to wait for the Education and Skills Committee to report. We have to decide how far we are along the line towards prescription or local discretion.
The accusation has been made that the curriculum has been narrowed. That is not the case by design, because we have seen the creation of a broad general education that covers a more extensive part of the school experience for young people, and in which they have the opportunity to study subjects across eight curricular areas to a deeper level for a longer period than they could have previously. That will create timetabling challenges for schools with the expansion of opportunities through school and college partnerships, the developing the young workforce agenda—which every member in the chamber supports—and the national progression awards. When I go to schools, they explain to me that some of the initiatives are creating much better destinations for young people who are from backgrounds of deprivation than the range of opportunities in the traditional subjects would ever provide.
I do not think that it affects those things one bit, because we are talking about a three-year senior phase in which young people have the opportunity to select a number of subjects to ensure that they have good and strong leaver qualifications.
The ultimate test is what our young people leave our education system with. On every measure, we have reason to be confident about what our education system is achieving. We have seen an increase in the number of highers—I was criticised earlier for talking about that increase, but it is noteworthy—and an increase in vocational qualifications. The number of school leavers who have attained vocational qualifications at SCQF level 5 and above has increased from 7.3 to 14.8 per cent. We have also seen a significant increase in the number of young people who are choosing to stay on longer at school to ensure that they have opportunities to take part in deeper learning.
In the debate, we must recognise that there are significant issues on which we have to decide. Do we want to leave it to educationists to decide on those issues and questions at local level? Is that where the priority should lie? Should educationists take those decisions, or is Parliament suddenly going to start to prescribe? We need to be clear about that. In my view, we should empower our schools to enable informed decisions to be taken. I do not understand what the rationale would be for us to prescribe.
We have to recognise that there was, in the foundation of curriculum for excellence, a change to how the education system operates and how it is perceived.
The comments that Gordon MacDonald and John Mason made reflect the fact that we need to educate and inform the wider community about the outcomes that are achieved in our education system. I am committed to engaging with people on that issue, and we will do so when we receive the information from the Education and Skills Committee.
The Government will engage actively to ensure that our education system meets the needs of young people and delivers on their expectations and those of their families.
This debate on the important subject of subject choice has been helpful, and I am grateful to all the members from across the chamber who have contributed to it.
As a number of members mentioned, subject choice is an issue that has been highlighted in recent weeks, both in last week’s Reform Scotland report entitled “National 4 and 5s: The accidental attainment gap”, and in evidence to the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee.
The first point to make is that it is absolutely clear from the evidence that there is a problem that we need to address. We have heard that from Professor Jim Scott of the University of Dundee; from Keir Bloomer, who is one of the authors of curriculum for excellence; from Marina Shapira of the University of Stirling; from Alan Britton of the University of Glasgow; from the Royal Society of Edinburgh; from the parents organisation, Connect; from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society; from the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers; and from one in three schools that responded to the Education and Skills Committee’s survey. Therefore, I do not think that it is credible simply to dismiss all that evidence and say that there is no problem.
What was disappointing about much in SNP members’ speeches was that they seemed to deny that there is any problem that needs to be addressed. That prompted a well-deserved scolding of the cabinet secretary by Johann Lamont. She was right to do that, because if we look at the evidence we can see that there is a problem, and we should be debating it.
The Reform Scotland report told us that although most state schools previously allowed pupils to take seven or eight standard grades, based on their individual ability, the majority of schools now offer only six subjects in S4. In a few schools, the figure is as low as five. As Ross Greer said very fairly, what is most concerning about the statistics is that the lack of choice impacts most on pupils who are from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the most deprived areas, just one in 10 schools offers 12 advanced highers or more, whereas in the most affluent areas seven in 10 schools offer that range of subjects. Oliver Mundell talked about the contrast between schools in urban areas and those in more rural and remote communities.
Why does that matter? There are a number of consequences of the reduction in subject choice. It means that pupils are not able to access subjects that they want to study. A nationwide survey that was presented to this morning’s Education and Skills Committee meeting reveals that 56 per cent of youngsters in Scottish schools were denied the opportunity to study their chosen subjects from national 4 level onwards. The key subjects that were being denied were modern studies, French, history, human biology and politics.
I have certainly had experience—as others will have had—of being contacted by parents in my region who are very concerned that their youngsters cannot access the courses that they want to study. That does not just knock the confidence of the pupils involved; it also means that they are unlikely to fulfil their potential, which is a point that was made very powerfully by Graham Simpson.
One respondent to the survey said:
“I wasn’t allowed to take modern studies and another social subject so I had to take art instead, which I hated.”
Another respondent said:
“I was forced to take Spanish (a course I have no interest in) and miss a class I really enjoy.”
The evidence tells us that pupils are being let down by the current approach.
There are also significant falls in the number of courses that might have the greatest economic impact. The research shows that, between 2013 and 2018, there was an overall decline of some 3,500 entrants at national 4 and national 5 levels in the sciences, a decline of about 5,000 in social sciences and an incredible decline of about 17,000 in languages. I have sat through many debates in the chamber on the economy and on exporting—indeed, the First Minister launched a new initiative on exporting this morning. In every one of those debates, we talked about the importance of exporting and the need for pupils in our schools to learn modern languages in order to grow that export potential. What do we see? There has been a drop of 17,000 in the number of pupils who study modern languages, which is damaging our country’s future economic potential.
What we are seeing is a wide variation across Scotland—a postcode lottery, as Reform Scotland has put it. Some local authorities, for example East Renfrewshire Council, allow children to sit eight or more exams, but in other areas, including East Dunbartonshire and Dumfries and Galloway, we have seen a decline, even over the past three years, in the number of courses that are offered, with most schools offering only six.
We are also seeing the issue that was identified by Alison Harris—multilevel teaching, with teachers having to teach different year groups or levels at the same time. In his evidence to the Education and Skills Committee, William Hardie of the Royal Society of Edinburgh stated that that is a particular problem when it comes to science. Professor Scott, too, said that that “should be a no-no” in the sciences.
So, what has gone wrong? Keir Bloomer puts the blame firmly on the interpretation of guidance on curriculum for excellence. He says:
“One of the purposes of CFE was to broaden pupils’ education, but instead the way in which it is being implemented is narrowing it significantly.
There is ample opportunity for pupils to combine practical and academic options when they are enabled to sit nine, eight, or even seven exams, but when we narrow it down to six or five there is very little room for manoeuvre.
Someone attending a school which allows only a low number of exams to be sat and who leaves after fourth year will find themselves with fewer qualifications than other leavers; those going on to study Highers have a smaller pool of subjects from which to choose.”
That, he concluded, is
“the unintended consequence of ill-conceived advice”, and he stated bluntly that it
“is the hallmark of poor management.”
That answers the point that the cabinet secretary made earlier in the debate and again more recently. Of course schools should have autonomy, but the problem is that at the moment they are struggling with interpreting the curriculum as well as the information that is being passed down to them, which is not sufficiently clear. Jenny Marra made the important point that because it is often councils that determine the number of subjects, the schools themselves have no autonomy. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will agree that that is unsatisfactory.
Will Murdo Fraser share with Parliament which areas of curricular guidance should be improved to assist schools in delivering the subject choice that he is talking about?
Yes, Keir Hardie is somebody else altogether. I meant Keir Bloomer.
Keir Bloomer’s concerns were echoed by William Hardie of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in evidence to the Education and Skills Committee last week. He referred to Education Scotland’s new guidance in 2016 on how the broad general education and senior phases knit together, and stated:
“even the new guidance is unclear about the extent to which learning in the broad general education phase can prepare young learners for progression to national qualifications.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee,
24 April 2019; c 2.]
When one of the architects of curriculum for excellence says that there is a problem with how it is being interpreted, and when we see clear problems with the guidance that is being issued, it is time that the Scottish Government paid attention. After all, this matters: it matters to parents, it matters to pupils and it matters to our economy.
In her submission to the committee, one parent, Alys Rodwell, said that she was concerned about the knock-on effect on the success and employability of young people in the country for years to come. She said:
“Unless there are changes the standing of the Scottish Education System will continue to fall in comparison with the rest of the world.”
Professor Jim Scott put it bluntly when he said:
“We are in danger of a whole generation going past who have not had a good experience in education.”
So what needs to be done? It is time that the Scottish Government took the advice of experts and carried out the delayed mid-session review of curriculum for excellence, as Professor Scott has recommended. Quite simply, what we have at the moment is not fit for purpose, and if we continue with it, too many of our young people will lose out. Indeed, that is precisely the point that is covered by Iain Gray’s amendment, which calls for the evaluation to be brought forward. I am glad that the Scottish Government has accepted that point and will support that amendment—as we will—because that is precisely what we need to do.
We do not accept the claim that we heard from Mr Swinney at the start of the debate that we should not be debating the issue now and that it should be punted into the long grass. It is not a new issue—we have been talking about it for years. If Parliament cannot debate issues that matter to parents, pupils and teachers across Scotland, what is it for? What is the point of it? It was unwise of Mr Swinney to say at the start of the debate that it is about political opportunism, although he used a more emollient term towards the end. Parliament needs to highlight the real concerns that people have about education, which is precisely what we have been doing this afternoon.
In the debate, all the Opposition parties have come together to raise concerns from different political perspectives on the route that we are going down. I sincerely hope that if, at decision time, the motion is agreed to with the Labour amendment, the Scottish Government will listen to Parliament. I hope that the Government will stop burying its head in the sand and start agreeing to take action, because that is what Scotland’s pupils deserve.