Getting it right for every learner: incremental redesign for improved outcomes – Sarah Atkin

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On a positive note, the Scottish upper secondary exam system, remains, in my view better than its English counterpart despite recent bad headlines.  The broader ‘gold standard’ of 5 Highers in a single sitting, across a range of disciplines remains a reliable indicator of potential for undergraduate study but a greater range of challenging learning experiences in upper secondary for all learners, whether or not they aspire to higher education, is surely going to turn out more roundly educated, intellectually curious and skilled young people. 

The tenets of Scottish education – breadth and academic rigour – within a comprehensive and largely inclusive school system are what Scottish education was famed for when I was growing up in England.  It is ironic, then that when the traditional Scottish approach is possibly at its most relevant to the wider needs of the economy/society, there’s disquiet that these principles are slowly being undermined through early subject narrowing and structural design that misfires: the unintended consequence of reform. 

Concern expressed over subject narrowing impacting on young people’s opportunities, on social justice and on Scotland’s economic future cannot be brushed under the carpet.  Neither can the bigger picture on attainment, or the ‘postcode lottery’ of subject access that has emerged since the new qualifications and school structure were introduced.  A ‘flexible’ and largely open ended senior phase of S4-S6 looks good on paper but cannot work in practice with inherent design flaws.  

  • There’s no ‘closure’ to the S1 – 3 phase (e.g. in the Republic of Ireland their junior phase is concluded with an externally examined Certificate with exams again at the end of their senior phase.)
  • National 5 courses do not lend themselves easily to one year of study. 
  • The system as a whole remains fixed around S5/Highers and the needs of the cohort of learners taking them: the most able.  The aspiration for ‘flexibility’ over 3 years conflicting with the still adhered to ‘gold standard’ of 5 Highers in one sitting; the benchmark for access to top universities.
  • Designing a ‘flexible’/open ended 3-year phase also assumes, rather naïvely, that all teenagers are naturally imbued with equal levels of self-motivation and a drive to succeed regardless of background or ability.  The opposite is true.  

It’s not the S5 year, per se that’s the issue but what comes before it (S4). S1-S3 is for ‘breadth’ and S4 dramatically narrowed at the point when most teenagers require incentives to do pretty much anything.

Commentators rarely look at the upper secondary experience from the hypothetical perspective of a middle/lower ability learner. A pupil without a specific or clear ‘pathway’ figured out. It’s important to consider school from their eyes.      

Courses reduced to 6 (Maths and English + 4) in S4 means the opportunity to ‘mix it up’ outside a core is near impossible.  This impacts more on less confident and less motivated learners. Narrowing will likely pivot them towards less academic options, given that pupil ‘choice’ is the orthodoxy.  However, with school budgets constrained practical options are often cut back and certified courses in these curricular areas less available. Class composition in practical learning will be less mixed in terms of ability than would have been the case under the old system.  Less able pupils might then feel slightly ‘on the fringes’ of school life as a result and further de-motivated. They’ll possibly have to choose a day a week at college to pursue a subject of interest; something their more academically able peers will never have to consider as they progress through the school. (Of course it’s practical learning that’s so often motivating and enjoyable for all pupils and offers a wealth of transferrable skills.)  

To fit S4/National 5 courses into a year under the strict S4 – S6 phase, each subject will run for 5 periods per week.  Some schools opt for a hybrid version of S3 – choice at the end of S2 but to 10 subjects (inc. Maths/English/). Each free choice in S3 is studied for just 2 periods a week per subject. The ‘leap’ to S4 is a shock to the system. S3 felt like a bit of a ‘coast’, not a ‘step up’. Another design flaw.  From the S3 experience it wasn’t clear X subject was going to prove so hard. The pace in S4 is frantic because there’s so much content.  There’s very little time or ‘space’ to take it all in.  I have personally witnessed under-confident – but still capable – pupils’ quickly overwhelmed and ready to give up; perhaps ‘dropping back’ to a National 4 feeling like failures.

Being in the middle or just below, these pupils won’t be on the radar for support either, especially with dwindling school budgets. They may not have encouragement or additional support available at home either. Teenagers so often don’t want to confide in their parents anyway.   

S4 is a ‘dash’ just like the S5 Higher year has always been. The difference is that those aiming for 5 Highers in S5 will be the most academically able with a very clear ambition – university. There’s a point to it all for them. (Even for the 5 Highers cohort limiting choice in S4 to just 6 courses is problematic. What of those wishing to continue with 3 sciences and/or 2 languages in S4? Not as easy to keep your future study options open.)  For the rest, where’s their incentive to carry on?  In this scenario, some will look to leave school as soon as possible for negative reasons, perhaps without the emotional maturity to sustain effort outside the structure of a school community. No closure either.  Here one day.  Gone the next. 

The system needs to meet the needs of all learners in a more equitable and motivational way in upper secondary, especially for those in the middle – the too often overlooked ‘invisible’ cohort whose pathway out of school isn’t so clear cut.  But how?  Schools do not want more upheaval. Could some redesign and a pivot in focus address the systemic flaws and incentivise more pupils to aspire and attain?

Firstly, let’s deal with the world as it is. Academic qualifications matter.  You have them forever. They are your passport.  We are told that our children are moving into a complex and less stable world where they’ll change jobs countless times; where they’ll need to be more adaptable; smarter; savvy; possessed of higher order intellectual capacity and skill to compete.  A world where low skilled work will be scarce. On this basis, any education system should surely aim for the majority of pupils to achieve at least a broad spread of generic academic qualifications at National/Level 5 before they leave school to set them up for whatever comes next and for their longer term prospects. It is a social justice and an economic imperative to raise the bar of aspiration; not dumb it down. Where you start should not be where you end up. The less privileged rarely get second chances. Currently the system isn’t geared towards incentivising enough pupils to aim high.

To meet this ambition it is vital to keep as many young people as possible within the school system, inclusively, for as long as possible – for me that’s at least to the end of a meaningful and fulfilling S5 for every pupil. A re-design and/or a shift in focus is needed. Some ideas.

First.  Is breadth at the wrong end of the secondary experience?  Should the S1 – S3 phase be kept ‘core’; allowing more resources, teacher hours and energy directed at opening up opportunities and experiences for the latter senior phase?  Also, it’s important to ask whether S3 provides sufficient preparation for a more intense level of study.      

Second. It has struck me over the years that a huge amount of effort goes into making S6 meaningful – the primary beneficiaries being those who have likely already got most out of the system. 

What if similar effort and resource were directed towards making S5 genuinely more meaningful to boost the aspiration of middle/lower achievers?  The carrot to get them through the ‘dry’ grind of S4.  In this context an S4 of ‘it’s only a year so head down’ is more appealing than the old 2-year course. The message given is that learning opportunities ‘open up’ in S5 for you as well, within school if you just get a core spread ‘nailed’.

There are less traditional SQA Level 5 and Level 6 courses that do not have exams but would provide challenge, motivation and breadth. Similarly, some National 5 optionscould be run just for S5/S6 pupils – the ‘want to’ subjects instead of ‘have to’ core – along with the Highers available for those at that standard.  Refocus school resources and teacher time to make the senior phase genuinely ‘broad’ in choice and more genuinely inclusive. A taste of success will motivate greater numbers to pursue higher level learning beyond S5 into S6 or college.    

Finally, the above is not to ignore the needs of the university focused either. If National 5 qualifications were to lend themselves more obviously to a 1-year course of study then this new system would work as it’s meant to do. Alternatively, if all schools were to configure their timetabling to allow for up to 7 choices in S4 (English/Maths + 5) – as some schools are managing to do whilst maintaining the S1-S3 phase – this will go some way towards addressing the issue of progression to Higher/Advanced Highers being inadvertently limited.    

Sarah Atkin works in education and has been a contributor to the Commission on School Reform.  She is a former Labour Party member and parliamentary candidate