Curriculum for Excellence in the senior phase: issues with breadth and choice

Next week sees the start of a new school year in Scotland, and the beginning of a new phase in the ongoing implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. The first run of the new National 4/5 qualifications (pre-16 qualifications) explores new territory for many in Scotland and, inevitably as with any innovation, there has been controversy. The lack of terminal examinations for National 4, in contrast with the direction of travel in the equivalent GCSEs in England has been contentious; according to some, this will devalue the qualifications in comparison with their predecessor Standard Grade and Intermediate qualifications, and especially in comparison with the new National 5, which will supplement coursework with exams.

A second area of controversy concerns choice, or more specifically a lack of choice. The new qualifications have been set up as one year courses, and yet they contain nearly as much content as their predecessor qualifications, which were run over two years. The arithmetic is easy here; where previously students in years S3-4 typically sat qualifications in 8 subjects (e.g. 8 standard grades over 2 years), it is now not possible to run 8 similar sized courses over a single year. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that schools are ‘discouraged’ from allowing students to choose examinations courses too early (i.e. at the end of S2 or even S1, as was formerly the case in schools that presented for exams early).

Schools and local authorities have wrestled with this problem, and a variety of different forms of provision have emerged. One option is simply to run the new qualifications over 2 years in S3 and S4 as was formerly the case. However, this is argued to be counter to the spirit of the new curriculum, in which the earlier Broad General Education phase (BGE) is supposed to last until the end of S3; there is, it is argued, no place for exam courses in this phase.

An alternative is to narrow the choices in S4, running the courses over one year and offering 5, or at best 6 qualifications. This is happening in many schools,and is attracting anxiety and criticism amongst parents, and in the media (see and My view is that such concerns are justified, and that we should not be narrowing the curriculum to such an extent pre-16. There are several issues, as I see it. A major strength of the Scottish system at the Higher level has been the breadth and lack of narrow specialisation in comparison with A Levels in England. Typically students will be ale to study for 5 Highers, from a base of 8 Standard Grades, and it is not uncommon to see them choosing from a range of different subjects, mixing arts,humanities, sciences, etc. In many schools under at National 4/5, this wide base will not exist. Once the compulsory English and Maths have been selected, students will only have 3 or 4 further options,and it is easy to see specialisation at this early stage in sciences (biology, physics, chemistry), social studies (history, geography, modern studies), arts or modern languages. So much for breadth!

A further problem in such a situation lies in the tendency for secondary schools to engage in subject imperialism – fierce competition for students. I am mindful here of an experience some years ago when visiting a student teacher on placement. I was told that this student could not possibly be given a second year class, because this was the time when students were choosing their options for exam courses, and a weak student might impact on the department’s ability to recruit. It is not hard to imagine similar game playing in schools where students are only able to choose 3 or 4 subjects at the end of S3.

Another issue, described to me by a journalist as the post-code lottery, is the large variation in provision from one local authority to the next, and indeed between schools within the same local authority. The lack of a national system means that different models have proliferated, and it is possible, for example, for a student in one school to study for 8 or more National 5, while another student in a neighbouring schools will only be able to study for 5. It is easy to see the impact this might have on a young person transferring from one school to another, and it inevitably rises questions about equity.

So what is the answer? How do we ensure that there is a decent breath of provision in S4, while not allowing exams to encroach into the BGE? One answer is to keep the idea of breadth in S3 by running around 10 subjects, all of which will provide foundation study for the National 4/5 courses in S4. Students would then be able to choose 7-8 subjects from this for S4. Of course this is all dependent on common subject content across National 4 and National 5 courses. It also depends on schools being able to make provision decisions based upon educational thinking, rather than on the practicalities of timetabling.

Despite these concerns, I remain in favour of curricular flexibility and a degree of school autonomy. The situation described above has been blamed by some on the flexibility and lack of prescription in CfE. To those people, I would say be careful what you wish for. The National Curriculum in England clearly demonstrated the problems caused by over-prescription. A current debate in the USA about the Core Curriculum (see also illustrates the passions that can be aroused when governments over-specify what is to be taught.