Secondary School Subject Choices

– in the Scottish Parliament on 11th December 2019.

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Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

6. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to research suggesting that children in poorer areas have almost 10 per cent fewer choices of subjects in secondary schools than those in better-off areas. (S5F-03787)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Pupils should be able to choose their preferred subjects. When a subject cannot be offered in one school, there is flexibility to consider alternative approaches, such as travel to a nearby school, college or university. We know from the recent headteacher survey that that is happening, because 97 per cent of headteachers said that they are flexible in their approach and that they offer individualised timetables wherever that is possible. We are also already seeing progress toward closing the attainment gap at Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels 3, 4, 5 and 6; the gap in attainment between the most and the least deprived pupils reduced considerably between 2009-10 and 2017-18.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

The comprehensive principle means that pupils should have the same opportunities, regardless of the school that they go to or where they live. However, the research calls into question whether that is still a reality for young people in our poorest communities. At secondary 5, data shows that the average number of entries in the most deprived schools is 3.4 compared to 4.3 in the most affluent—that is a 20 per cent gap in choices between the richest and the poorest pupils who are taking their highers. In practical terms, that means that the brightest kids from the poorest neighbourhoods will find it harder to get on to the best university courses because the option of taking particular combinations of subjects to higher and advanced higher level is simply not open to them. The Government will regularly trot out the line that there are more options and more qualifications available, but what does that matter if young people do not have the opportunity to take them or if there are different options at different schools in different areas? Does the First Minister accept the author of the report’s conclusion that, in Scotland, the poorer someone is the fewer choices they get, or is the comprehensive principle simply no longer important to this Government?

The First Minister:

No. I do not accept that, and I do not think that the evidence backs that up. As I said in my original answer, young people should be able to take their preferred subjects. There will be occasions when that cannot happen in their own school. That was the case when I was at school, and it meant that travel to a neighbouring school was occasionally required. However, it is not just about trotting out a line; there are more qualifications and there are more options available for young people today than has ever been the case. If all the credit and qualification framework levels are looked at—3,4,5 and 6—it can be seen that young people are leaving school with more qualifications and credits, and that the gap between the richest and poorest is closing. There is more work to be done, but progress is being made and we will continue to focus on accelerating it in the years to come.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

If the First Minister disagrees with the available evidence on subject choice inequality, will she instruct her education agency to assess the scale of the problem? Although the Education and Skills Committee has repeatedly asked it to do so, it has, for some reason, believed that that is not its responsibility.

The First Minister:

As I am sure that Ross Greer is aware, that is part of the purpose of the senior phase review, which the Deputy First Minister has already instructed and which will progress over the coming months. It is important that young people have the choices that they want to have in terms of subject choice, but, as I said, the evidence on the numbers of qualifications and the gap in attainment in terms of qualifications suggests that, across the whole of the senior phase, young people are attaining and achieving more, and the focus of this Government is on ensuring that we continue to see that progress.