Scottish MSPs warn of narrow curriculum as uptake of creative subjects declines

Fall in pupils studying social sciences, modern languages and arts should be red flag, says Labour’s education spokesman

The number of Scottish school pupils and students taking modern languages, social sciences and arts has fallen, prompting warnings from opposition parties over the dangers of a narrowing curriculum.

Official data showed the number of exam passes at Higher, a near equivalent to English A-levels, across Scotland’s schools and colleges held steady at 77%, falling very slightly by 0.2%.

But Labour and the Conservatives expressed concern that the Scottish curriculum was narrowing after the Scottish Qualifications Authority figures showed the numbers sitting modern languages at Higher fell by 6% overall, with history down by nearly 4% and geography by 2.6%.

Fewer pupils and students sat Highers this year, suggesting stronger performance per head. The pass rate for National Five, a relatively new qualification equivalent to GCSEs, stood at 79.5% compared with 79.4% last year.

John Swinney, the Scottish education secretary, was joined by teaching unions and opposition parties in congratulating the 137,000 pupils and college students who sat exams this year.

“The whole country should rightly be proud of the excellence and achievement in Scottish education demonstrated by these results,” Swinney said.

“We expect to see small variations in pass rates year-on-year, which demonstrate the high standards, strength and integrity of our national qualifications. This is of paramount importance.”

Tory analysis showed the number sitting Higher French fell 14.5% and Higher German 13%, with pass marks in both subjects falling, although Higher Spanish sittings rose 8%.

The numbers sitting arts exams at all three main tiers – National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, a course aimed at year 6 pupils – fell by 3%, while in social sciences it fell by 6% for Advanced Higher and 4% at Higher.

Iain Gray MSP
Curriculum concerns: Iain Gray MSP. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “Fall in pupils studying key subjects should be a red flag. A narrow curriculum is not in the interests of Scotland’s pupils but we continue to see subjects drop in terms of the number of pupils sitting it.”

Gray and Liz Smith, the Scottish Tory shadow education secretary, said these pass rates were despite falls in overall teacher numbers, funding cuts and changes to school governance.

“Today’s figures show that thousands of school children have done brilliantly and worked hard to earn their results,” Smith said. “But the fact is that, in too many cases, this is in spite of Scotland’s school system, not because of it.”

Year-on-year data released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority suggests a medium-term decline in exam performance, which parallels the transition of Scotland’s schools into the curriculum for excellence, a system passed more heavily on classroom and practical work.

The National 5 pass rate has fallen from 81% in 2014 to 79.5% this year; the Higher pass rate stood at 79.2% in 2015, when a revised system was introduced, compared with 77% this year; Advanced Higher passes were at 81.7% last year, when they were changed, compared with 80% this year.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, said he expected Swinney to uphold his promise to cut teachers’ workloads next year.

“Scotland’s teachers have again gone that extra mile to support their students’ learning, despite the enormous workload pressures faced by the profession,” Flanagan said. “Frankly, the goodwill of teachers has run out.”


Severin Carrell Scotland editor

The GuardianTramp

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