Impact of narrowing school curriculum on pupil outcomes

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A narrowing of the curriculum in secondary schools could impact on student outcomes – particularly for those from deprived backgrounds - according to new research.

A study by Dr Marina Shapira and Professor Mark Priestley, of the University of Stirling, found there was a reduction in the number of subject choices, and in subject enrolment by S4 pupils, between 2011 and 2017.

The main reduction took place in 2013-2014, when the new National 3-5 level qualifications were introduced. Although there was a reduction in the number of subject choices being offered across the country, it varied by local authority and was larger for schools in areas of higher deprivation.

Dr Shapira, Lecturer in Quantitative Research Methods, this week gave evidence at the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee.

She said existing research showed that subject choices made by young people in S4 were strongly related to subject choices made in S5 and S6 and, later, to their career opportunities and ability to make a transition to Higher Education.

Dr Shapira said: “Therefore, our findings about the relationship between the characteristics of schools - such as the percentage of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the level of deprivation of the school postcode area - and subject choice in S4, indicate that the developments under the Curriculum for Excellence might have a long-term adverse effect on educational outcomes, and the social and economic mobility opportunities for young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.”

The research found that although on average there was an increase in the proportion of entries in the sciences, young people in the least deprived areas were almost three times more likely to enrol in these subjects, while an increase in the proportion of entries for vocational subjects was largest for those attending schools in the most deprived areas.

There was a considerable reduction in the proportion of entries for modern languages across the board, but this was larger for schools in areas with a higher level of deprivation.

Schools with a higher teacher/student ratio, and those offering more subjects at National 5 level, had more entries per student. Schools with a larger number of students entitled to free school meals and a bigger proportion of pupils with special learning support needs, had fewer subject entries per student.

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