Revealed: the narrowing options at secondary schools in poorer areas

Children in poorer parts of Scotland have nearly 10 per cent fewer choices of subjects in secondary schools than those in better-off areas, new research has found.

The evidence suggests that students from deprived areas attempt fewer qualifications and fail more of them. The school curriculum has narrowed, experts warn, worsening disadvantages and having a “profound impact” on many lives.

Opposition politicians describe the research as “damning”, and accuse ministers of being “tone deaf” to the problem. The Scottish Government stressed that pupils should be able to choose their preferred subjects “wherever possible”.

Calls to reform key school qualifications as pupils fail to progress

Barry Black, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, has compared the number of subjects that pupils attempt – known as entries – with the proportion of pupils given free meals in different schools. The level of free school meals is seen as a key indicator of poverty.

He discovered a clear link, suggesting that children at senior levels at schools in more deprived areas have significantly fewer options than children from more affluent areas.

In schools where between 40 and 50 per cent of students receive free school meals, the average number of entries from S4 to S6 – known as senior phase – is 12.94. But in schools where less than 10 per cent of pupils receive free school meals, the figure rises to 14.25.

The gap seems to widen as children get older. S4 pupils in the most deprived areas have an average of 6.2 entries, while those in the least deprived parts of the country have 6.76.

In S5 schools in deprived areas have an average of just 3.42 entries, while the figure for those serving better-off areas is 4.27.

In S6 there are greater variations in subject entries, although the picture is complicated by the inclusion of Advanced Highers which are more widely available in schools in affluent areas.

Black’s research also highlights the large disparity in success rates between schools in different areas. Those in deprived parts of the country are less likely to leave school with one or more qualification at Higher level or equivalent, known as SCQF6.

In the most deprived areas just over half of pupils achieve this benchmark, compared to nearly three quarters of those in the most affluent parts of the country. This means that already disadvantaged pupils study fewer subjects and are less likely to pass the ones that they do attempt, he says.

“This data shows what has been increasingly evident for some time – that pupils in schools with higher rates of deprivation have fewer numbers of subject choices,” Black told The Ferret.

“The higher the rate of pupils on free school meals at a school, the lower the number of qualifications that will be attempted on average, and the lower rates of attainment experienced too.”

He pointed out that the number of subject choices had narrowed across the country since the introduction of new exams in 2014. “The narrowing is having a bigger impact on our most deprived schools,” he argued.

“Subject choices have a profound impact upon young people, their future options and their lives. In Scotland the pupils in the poorest schools have less of these choices to make.”

His findings are backed up by research done by Dr Marina Shapira from the University of Stirling. Her research team has been recently quoted by the education secretary, John Swinney.

She confirmed that the S4-6 curriculum had become narrower in the last six years, with S4 pupils taking fewer subjects. “The size of this reduction has not been uniform, but has varied between schools of different characteristics, between areas with different level of deprivation and between local authorities,” she said.

“The findings show that the socio-economic composition of school intake has a strong association with the number and configuration of subject entries. A larger reduction in the number of subject entries for National 5 level qualifications took place in schools in more deprived areas, schools where the proportion of pupils with additional learning support needs was higher, and schools with poorer staff-student ratios.”

She added: “We also found that the number of subject entries was smaller in schools where the overall number of subjects offered for National 5 level qualifications was smaller.”

According to the parents’ organisation, Connect, the research highlights a series of interrelated problems. “Some schools in areas of social deprivation face a vicious circle which impacts on pupils’ subject choices,” said the group’s executive director, Eileen Prior.

“Low school rolls result in reduced teaching staff numbers, difficulties with teacher recruitment and therefore reduced subject options. Then there are fewer pupils to take up subjects.”

This can mean that courses in some subjects can’t be offered or run, Prior argued. “However, there are other schools in areas of social deprivation where the curriculum is tailored to learners’ strengths and interests,” she said.

“This might also mean that subjects are reduced because there are fewer pupils and no interest in some subjects. There is a strong case for examining more closely what is going on in these schools – we know a lot of very good work is being done by young people and staff.”

Revealed: multi-level teaching widespread across Scottish schools

The Scottish Greens have raised the issue of inequality in subject choices with the Scottish Government and its education agencies. “Their response has been to repeatedly deny that the problem exists,” said the party’s education spokesperson, Ross Greer MSP.

“But yet again independent academic evidence has shown that pupils from the most deprived communities have the most restricted choice of subjects. For John Swinney to solve this he and his officials firstly need to accept what the evidence is showing them.”

Greer added: “The SNP declared that closing the attainment gap in education would be their defining mission in government. It’s impossible to square that claim with the heads-in-sand approach which has defined their record in recent years.”

Scottish Labour asserted that something was wrong with the senior phase at secondary schools. “The danger of a two tier school system developing is stark, yet John Swinney continues to deny these problems exist, utterly tone deaf to what is happening,” said the party’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray MSP.

“It is bad enough that pupils are able to choose a much narrower curriculum to follow, but absolutely damning that pupils from our most deprived areas have the most constrained choices,” he added.

“These are pupils who already face multiple barriers to educational success, and this unintended consequence of a poor fit between curriculum for excellence and the new exams is clearly yet another.”

The Scottish Government did not directly respond to the new research findings. “Pupils should be able to choose their preferred subjects wherever possible and when a subject cannot be offered, schools have flexibility to consider alternative approaches such as travel to a nearby school, college or university,” said a government spokesperson.

“Young people now have a much wider range of choice than ever before, allowing them to find the route into employment or further education that is right for them.

“The gap between the most and least deprived communities for young people entering work, training or further study is half what it was in 2009-10, while a record number of students from the most disadvantaged areas gained a place at university last year.”

In October The Ferret reported the widespread use of multi-level teaching in schools across Scotland, and disclosed a “postcode lottery” of high school charges for home economics, art and other practical classes.

Photo thanks to iStock/monkeybusinessimages

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