The Scottish Government has been urged to act over the use of multi-level teaching in schools after an investigation by The Ferret revealed that the practice is widespread across Scotland.
Data from the 2018-19 school year, revealed through freedom of information requests to Scottish councils, has heightened concerns over multi-level teaching and links to deprivation levels in schools, despite education secretary, John Swinney, arguing such data did not exist.
Multi-level teaching refers to pupils aiming for different qualifications, such as National 5 and Highers, being taught in the same class. Critics have argued that the practice makes effective teaching very difficult.
The Ferret has unearthed information which, for the first time, shows the prevalence of multi-level teaching across the country and exposes enormous variations in different council areas.
Two of the most affluent, high-performing areas make little use of the practice. In East Renfrewshire, five of the seven secondary schools offer all subjects as single-level classes. In the two schools that do make use of multi-level teaching, fewer than half of classes are delivered in this way.
In East Dunbartonshire, four secondary schools – including Bishopbriggs Academy, which has twice been named Scottish Secondary School of the Year – almost all classes are taught on a single-level basis, and only Kirkintilloch High School uses tri-level teaching.
Most National 5 and Higher classes in schools on Orkney are single-level, but there are very few single-level National 4 classes.
In North Lanarkshire, however, all school have multi-level classes. Clyde Valley responded to the request for information by stating that “almost all of S4 classes (with the exception of English and Maths) are bi-level.” Other schools in the area, such as Coltness and Airdrie, protect single-level teaching for English and Maths but make use of it for other subjects.
In Dundee, nearly 60 per cent of senior phase classes feature either two, three or four levels being taught in the same class, with bi-level teaching accounting for 47 per cent of total classes.
Both Glasgow City Council and the City of Edinburgh Council refused to release the requested information, while Clackmannanshire, Fife, Midlothian and Scottish Borders councils failed to respond to the request. Some others, such as Highland, Falkirk and Perth & Kinross, supplied incomplete responses.
John Swinney has defended multi-level teaching, saying he had not seen any evidence of an “explosion” in its use. “I don’t think that data exists,” he added.
But in a recent report Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee was critical of the government’s failure to collect data on multi-level teaching in Scotland’s secondary schools.
The committee argued that the government should have been collecting such information after concerns were raised in 2016. Their report described the absence of such data as “frustrating”.
The committee report also advised that the “clear message sent to the committee by teachers” is that multi-level classes “would inevitably result in some pupils not receiving adequate preparation for examinations.”
The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association also recently hit out the practice, describing it as “concerning” and saying that multi-level teaching “has wrongly become the norm in most schools in Scotland.”
What is ‘multi-level teaching’?
Multi-level teaching refers to a situation when pupils studying at different qualification levels of a particular subject are taught together in the same class. It may involve a mixture of National 4, National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher students.
Prior to the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, Standard classes were regularly timetabled with Foundation and General pupils in one class while those expected to sit General and Credit were in another.
However, the change to new qualifications in recent years has made things more complicated. National 4 and National 5 courses are designed very differently, with the former having no external final exam and instead being assessed by teachers themselves. National 5 and new Higher courses both have final examinations, but teachers have complained that wide disparities in course content make multi-teaching extremely difficult.
Multi-level teaching should not be confused with mixed-ability, which is where pupils in primary and early secondary school are not separated into different classes based on their perceived ability or prior achievements.
The information released to The Ferret also shows large variations within some local authorities.
In Aberdeen multi-level teaching is common, with almost half of all classes involving bi-level teaching; however, at Cults Academy in the city, a high-performing school serving an affluent catchment area, all classes except art and drama are delivered using a single-level structure.
There are also large variations in the Inverclyde area. Multi-level teaching accounts for just six per cent of classes at Clydeview, seven per cent at Notre Dame and eight per cent at St Columba’s. But the figure jumps to 23 per cent at Port Glasgow.
In Argyll & Bute, the level of multi-level teaching ranges from 13 per cent at Tobermory High School to 96 per cent at Tarbert Academy.
Ross Greer MSP, education spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and a member of the education and skills committee, accused the Scottish Government of having “stuck their fingers in their ears for too long”
He said: “Multi-level teaching is inevitable in certain contexts, such as small rural schools. It is becoming quite clear though that its use is much more widespread than that. From the data collected so far, there appears to be a clear link between multi-level teaching and the level of deprivation in an area.
“If this is true, it’s an utterly unacceptable way to treat our young people. If they’re serious about closing the attainment gap, they need to act.”
The education secretary veers from refusing to accept it is happening, to telling us it is fine and always happened, to making threatening noises about cutting subject choice. His approach to this issue is a scandal. Iain Gray, Labour MSP
Scottish Labour‘s Education spokesperson, Iain Gray MSP, argued that the latest information is “yet more evidence of the problems and inequity created by multilevel teaching”.
Gray – a former secondary school teacher – told The Ferret: “Very little evidence supports an educational rationale for the practice, which is clearly being used to cover up a lack of resource, particularly teaching staff. We did get evidence that the current exams are in no way designed to be taught in this way.
“Now we see that the chances of pupils and teachers suffering this practice varies widely across Scotland and is likely to be worse in schools in poorer areas. The fact that in some areas most senior classes are multi-level is alarming.”
He added: “This is a chaotic approach to schools, driven by budget restraints not learning, with no one prepared to accept responsibility. Meanwhile the education secretary veers from refusing to accept it is happening, to telling us it is fine and always happened, to making threatening noises about cutting subject choice. His approach to this issue is a scandal.”
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland’s largest teaching union, described increases in multi-level teaching across the country as a “significant concern”.
An EIS spokesperson said: “Although it may be appropriate in some cases, for example in rural areas, it should never be used as a cost-cutting exercise to allow schools to run fewer classes.
“In order to provide the most comprehensive and high-quality educational experience, teachers should be teaching one course in classes wherever possible. This is particularly relevant during the senior phase when pupils are preparing for exams.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Multi-level teaching has long been part of Scottish education and teachers are well-skilled to take account of the needs of their pupils. There will be varying levels of prior attainment in any class.
“It is for individual schools and local authorities to take their own decisions on the best design of the senior phase, in the interests of their young people.”
The spokesperson pointed out that Education Scotland inspectors would evaluate the extent to which children and young people were being suitably supported and challenged in their learning. “The most important thing is the outcome for the young person – and last year a record proportion of pupils went on to positive destinations such as work, training or further study,” the spokesperson added.
“Our review of the senior phase will help us to better understand how the curriculum is being implemented in schools and identify any areas for improvement.”
How widespread is multi-level teaching in each Scottish council area?
Note: Glasgow and Edinburgh did not provide data.