Choice, attainment and positive destinations: exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people

Funded by The Nuffield Foundation.

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is typical of modern curricula that are seeking to improve the breadth of learning for young people (Scottish Executive 2004 ). The Scottish school curriculum historically has had a high degree of breadth and flexibility. The CfE offered further flexibility through allowing greater schools autonomy: schools can now decide how many subjects they offer to S3/S4 students. The greater choice offered by the CfE had a number of unintended consequences. Thus, evidence suggests that there has been a curricular narrowing and the widespread reduction of choice in many secondary schools and sometimes uniformly in all schools within some local authorities (Shapira and Priestley 2018, Scott 2015).

In Scotland, the selection of school subjects within the secondary system has been always socially patterned: there are differences in the subject’s uptake by parental social class and the social inequalities in subject choice in S3/S4 are also reproduced in S5/S6 (Iannelli et al., 2015). While students from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds rely on their family resources and receive informed advice on the choice of subjects that facilitate them transitions and admission into prestigious universities, students from disadvantaged social origins lack this kind of support and may make ill informed choices that would be consequential for their further transition from compulsory to post-compulsory education and work.

Therefore, it is important to understand whether CfE meets its commitment to equip the students with 21st century skills and knowledge. Currently, this is problematic due to a lack of a systematic empirical evidence bases about what is actually happening in schools, regarding curricular provision. Such understanding can be achieved through a filling an evidence gaps and systematically gathering a currently missing information about the landscape of the modern Scottish curriculum provision, variations in this provision and factors that can be responsible for these variations. Furthermore, it is important to systematically examine the phenomenon of the curriculum narrowing and reveal the macro-, meso- and micro- level factors that are shaping the narrowing of the curriculum. Finally, it is important to evaluate the extent to which the curriculum narrowing is consequential for prospects of young people from different socio-economic backgrounds of entering HE institutions and finding The proposed research comprises two stages. Stage 1. Primary data collection. A mixed method approach will be adopted: • A survey of headteachers in secondary schools in Scotland in order to o identify the curriculum provision in S1-S6 and variation in this provision between regions, local authorities and schools of different characteristics; o explore between-school variations in the number of subject choices offered to students o explore the factors that affect these variations • Case studies in 5/6 secondary schools including observations, in-depth interviews of headteachers, curriculum leaders, subject leaders and guidance teachers in order to o gain insights into factors (both on school and local authorities levels) that shape number and configurations of subject choices in in S3-S5 curriculum provision o explore the processes of decision making about the curriculum provision and the role of school in these decisions • 5-6 focus groups with parents and students. This part of the study will be informed by a need to identify key influencers in the subject choices among the students from different socio-economic background at different stages of secondary education. The focus groups will explore the parent and student agency, the way that make decision about subject choices, the way they link subject choices at different stages of secondary school to post-school transitions.
The schools selected for the first stage of the project will be representative of secondary schools in Scotland in terms of regional urban/rural divide, school size, local authority characteristics and socio-economic composition of schools’ student populations.

Stage 2. Secondary data analysis. A quantitative research methodology will be applied to analyse existing administrative data on attainment and transitions of young people in Scotland. The secondary data comprise the Scottish Government education data, Scottish Qualifications Authority data and Scottish Longitudinal Study that will be analysed in order gain insights into the • long-term trends in the number and configurations of subject choices in in S3-S4 • long-term trends in attainment at SCQF National 4-Natioanal 6 level qualifications • trends in the relationship between the subject choice in S3-S4 and the attainment in S4-S6. • trends in the relationship between the subject choice in S3-S4 and transitions from secondary education to HE and work • variations in the number and configurations of subject choices in in S3-S4 between regions, local authorities and schools of different characteristics • Variation in the impact of subject choices on the attainment and transitions of pupils according to o School characteristics o Pupils’ characteristics

In order to examine the changing configuration of subject choice and the relative impact of CfE on the attainment and transitions of pupils and school leavers in Scotland, the study will analyse and compare between two cohorts of young people – those who went through the S3-S6 stages of secondary education during 2009-2012, prior to the CfE introduction and those who went through the S4-S6 stages of secondary education during 2013-onwards. The research will comprise statistical modelling approaches, such as linear and binary logistic, logit and ordinal probit multivariate regression models and multilevel regression models (in order to culture the effect of schools and local authorities), to assess the relative impact of subject choice on attainment and transitions of young people in Scotland, after controlling for characteristics of school and family background of students. We will seek the support of the ADRN and the SLS for the datasets access. The relevant staff on the project will undergo training to attain SLS Approved Researcher status and the Safe Users of Research Data Environment certification.

The timetable: The project will cover 24 months: • Months 1-3 – preparation/access. • Months 4-10 – survey undertaken, secondary data analysis. • Month 10-18 – case studies, further secondary data analysis • Months 19-24 - primary data analysis and dissemination.

References Iannelli, C., Smyth, E. and Klein, M. (2015). “Curriculum differentiation and social inequality in higher education entry in Scotland and Ireland” (British Education Research Journal, available at Scott, J. (2015). The Governance of Curriculum for Excellence in Scottish Secondary Schools: Structural Divergence, Curricular Distortion and Reduced Attainment. Written submission to the OECD Review of Curriculum for Excellence. Online at: Scottish Executive (2004). A Curriculum for Excellence. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive Shapira, Marina and Priestley, Mark (2018) Narrowing the Curriculum? Contemporary trends in provision and attainment in the Scottish Curriculum. Scottish Educational Review, 50(1)

Total award value £272,449.00

People (2)


Dr Marina Shapira

Dr Marina Shapira

Associate Professor, Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology

Professor Mark Priestley

Professor Mark Priestley

Professor, Education

Outputs (4)