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Blog - Scottish pupils ‘not being offered a fair choice’ of subjects under the SNP

Secondary pupils across Scotland are not being offered a fair choice under the SNP following a huge increase in schools restricting the number of subjects that can be studied in fourth year, it has been claimed.

Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative education spokesman, said the dwindling number of subjects was hitting those who wanted to leave school early the hardest.

In a debate in Holyrood, she added that 57 per cent of schools now offer only six subjects to children in S4, leading to almost 144,000 fewer annual courses being passed. The figure has jumped from 28 per cent in 2013.

MSPs were told the situation was particularly affecting pupils in disadvantaged communities.

Labour accused Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney of presiding over an education system in danger of losing the respect of teachers, pupils and parents.

The debate followed the disclosure by the Telegraph last week that less than 60 per cent of Scottish secondaries now provide six courses in S4, leading to a National qualification, with barely 11 per cent teaching the gold standard of eight.

Prof Jim Scott, of the University of Dundee’s School of Education and Social Work, warned this gave pupils no latitude when choosing Highers if they fail to gel with one or two of their subjects.

The Tories said the figures meant that those who choose to leave school before sitting Highers will do so with fewer qualifications than ever, hampering their chances of employment, apprenticeships or a college place.

Ms Smith said: “Few decisions are more important to any young person at school than those they make about subject choice.

“There is a marked effect on many young people attending schools in disadvantaged communities – something about which we should all be very concerned in terms of widening access.”

She added that it would not be possible to have effective subject choices  while “we have 3,400 fewer teachers in the system than we did when SNP came to power”, and while experienced teachers in subjects like maths were leaving the profession.

Ms Smith said the situation also meant there was a “very serious” situation with the Advanced Higher, and claimed the purpose of a final year at school was being called into question.

Oliver Mundell, the Tory MSP, added: “We talk about the Curriculum for Excellence as being about empowering the individual learner. It is surely then quite ironic that the reality of the new curriculum for many young people in Scotland is that less choice than ever before exists at a crucial juncture.”

John Swinney, the Education Minister, told MSPs the reduction in subjects was part of the redesign of the curriculum and represented a move away from the previous system “where the focus was on gaining as many standard grades or O-levels as possible”.

“The period from S4 to S6 … is designed as a three-year phase of learning where the focus is on a learner’s total achievements by the end of that period, rather than individual year-on-year attainment.”

He also said it was for individual schools to decide whether pupils in S4 were getting a fair choice of subjects.

That was questioned by Jenny Marra, for Labour, who said Dundee City Council had told schools that fourth year pupils could sit a maximum of six subjects.

MSPs unanimously backed a Conservative motion, amended by the government and Labour, “noting with concern evidence that shows that, for a substantial number of schools across Scotland, subject choice for S4 pupils has been reduced”, believing this is an “unintended consequence” of the current structure of Curriculum for Excellence, and further believing it is “exacerbated by teacher shortages in key subjects”.

The motion also recognises that “the most significant measure of achievement is when pupils leave school after the three-year senior phase”.