Is the S5 curriculum narrowing? Evidence from a survey with secondary school leaders offers some answers

By Tracey Peace-Hughes, Camilla Barnett, Marina Shapira, Michelle Ritchie and Mark Priestley 

Recent news articles (see here and here) have reignited concerns that under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) young people are studying fewer subjects and fewer qualifications in their Senior Phase of secondary education in Scotland. These articles are based on data obtained by the Scottish Conservatives via a freedom of information request (FOI). This data appears to show a fall in the number of entries per students in their 5th year. In response to these figures Jamie Greene, the Scottish Conservatives shadow education secretary, is quoted as saying:  

Scottish pupils are being denied opportunities to study the subjects they want. Their future opportunities are being limited by the SNP, and that should be a source of shame for the education secretary. 

This phenomenon whereby there is a reduction in the number of subjects studied, and fewer qualifications gained in the Senior Phase of secondary school, is known as curriculum narrowing and is one debate which regularly arises in Scottish education (see here). 

Indeed, the current criticisms raised by the Conservative Party are open to challenge. As, the Scottish Government response to the FOI points out that, the figures they provide are based on the number of entries into SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) national qualifications by S5 students and are not a measure of all choices available to young people in each schoool. Further, Larry Flanagan, General Secretary of the EIS (Scotland’s largest teaching union), is quoted as saying: 

Most pupils in S5 will be timetabled for five subject areas, as was the case before the Senior Phase was introduced, and therefore continue to have the same options around subject choice and qualifications as before. 

In this article, we further explore these debates, drawing upon empirical evidence from our own research. As part of our Nuffield funded project exploring the impact of CfE, we completed a survey over the summer asking Scottish secondary school leaders to respond to some questions about their school curriculum, curriculum making and the factors influencing curriculum decisions. We received 116 individual responses from secondary schools located across 29 local authorities. This represents about 1/3 of Scottish secondary schools. We are currently analysing this data, but we have started to find some data that runs contrary to the argument of curriculum narrowing in S5 and which largely supports the views of Mr Flanagan.  

We asked school leaders ‘what is the maximum number of subjects or courses students can choose to study in S5/S6’ and ‘what is the typical number of subjects or courses students can choose to study in S5/6’. The table below highlights the average numbers reported for each question across the survey responses. Across S5 and S6 the maximum number of subjects studied by students is just over 5 on average (5.5 and 5.3, respectively), with the typical number of subjects studied in S5 remaining at 5 (5.1) on average in S5, and falling to just over 4 (4.4) on average in S6. 

 Maximum number of subjects or courses studied Typical number of subjects or courses studied 
S5 5.5 5.1 
S6 5.3 4.4 
Table 1: maximum and typical number of subjects or courses studied in S5 and S6

When we look at the typical number of subjects and courses studied in S5 and S6 in more detail, all schools responded that 5 or 6 subjects or courses are typically studied in S5 – with 5 subjects or courses the most typical response option (accounting for 88% of schools in our sample). In S6, there was a little more variation with 92% of schools in our sample responding that students typically studied 4 or 5 subjects or courses in S6 – with 4 subjects the most common response option (63%). The minimum reported was 3 (by just 2% of our sample) and the maximum was 6 (6% of our sample). 

Our data suggests that in S5, students are, on average, studying the maximum number of subjects or courses available to them. Further, contrary to current debate, as typical numbers of subjects or courses studied in S5 remain at 5 (as seen in the pre-CfE era), this suggests there has not been a curriculum narrowing in this stage of secondary schooling. In line with historical trends in S6, continuing from pre-CfE, students tend to take fewer subjects, than the maximum on offer to study, in their sixth year of secondary education. So, again, this provides further evidence of little curriculum narrowing in S6 since the implementation of CfE. 

We would expect school leaders to have a good understanding of the typical number of subjects taken by the students in their school. So, if according, to school leaders, students are still commonly studying 5 subjects at S5 why does the the data in the FOI appear to show a reduction in subjects? And, why does it show that most schools are entering between 3 and 4 subjects per pupil in 2020? After analysing publicly available data and data from our own survey, we believe the answer lies in which courses and qualifications are counted in the analysis.  

The FOI data (available here) was requested based on entries into SQA National Qualifications and as pointed out in the Scottish Government response to the request this does not include all courses available to S5 students.  

Data included Data not included  
Advanced Highers National Progression Awards 
Highers National Certificates 
National 5 Personal Development Awards 
National 4 Wider achievement awards 
National 3 Foundation Apprenticeships 
National 2  
Intermediate 1  
Intermediate 2  
Access 3  
Access 2  
Standard grades  
Skills for Work  
Table 2: Summary of data included in the FOI request

As school leaders reported in our survey that 5th years are typically taking 5 subjects, the lower numbers found on average in the FOI data are likely, at least in part, to be due to the omission of those courses noted in the above table. We know from our survey of school leaders that the majority of Scottish secondary schools (87% of our sample) are offering at least one National Progression Award in the senior phase, 70% are offering at least one Foundation apprenticeship course, 26% are offering at least one National Certificate, 96% are offering at least one Personal Development Award and 98% are offering at least one wider achievement award (e.g., Duke of Edinburgh, Saltire Awards). On average, schools are offering 14.5 of these excluded courses in the senior phase. Therefore, the exclusion of these courses is likely to skew the FOI data and, if they were included, we can assume the average number of subjects per students would increase overall.  

In addition, if the proportion of students taking these omitted awards and courses has increased over time, that could account for the apparent falling number of subjects over time in the FOI data. Data available from the SQA (see here) allows us to consider this.  Taking National Progression Awards as an example (see table 3 below), we can see there has been an increase in the numbers of students taking these across SCQF levels 4-6 between 2015 and 2019. Indeed, SCQF level 6 is the level which a Higher qualification is set.  Similar patterns can be seen across other courses excluded from the FOI data. Therefore, the apparent fall in the number of subjects, taken by S5 students over time, may be partly explained by students choosing to take different kinds of qualifications in their 5th year since the implementation of CfE – and not that they simply take fewer subjects.

LEVEL 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 PERCENT CHANGE 2018/2019 
SCQF Level 2 76 76 79 131 81 -38% 
SCQF Level 3 208 203 288 277 207 -25% 
SCQF Level 4 5,982 6,725 6,966 7,561 7,401 -2% 
SCQF Level 5 7,155 7,951 8,382 8,683 10,050 16% 
SCQF Level 6 2,013 2,736 3,164 5,081 5,764 13% 
Totals 15,434 17,691 18,879 21,733 23,503 8% 
Table 3: Trend in entries, National Progression Awards, 2015 to 2019 

As we previously noted, in their FOI response, the Scottish Government highlight that subject entry does not account for what level of choice students have, for example, it does not give evidence on the range of subjects available for students to choose from when selecting their subjects.  Nor does it account for localised, and contextualised, curriculum design. These are important issues that we aim to capture in our on-going work.  

The issue of curriculum narrowing is an important one that members of our team have considered previously in S4 (Shapira and Priestley, 20182020). So, while there is a notable curriculum narrowing in S4, at National 5 level, the preliminary work we have done so far on this project is suggesting that there is no phenomenon of curriculum narrowing (at least in terms of typical numbers of subjects studied) in S5, and this latest debate has not convinced us either. We do believe much more work is needed on the phenomenon of curriculum narrowing and resulting attainment and transitions, particularly around transition implications of curriculum narrowing in S4. Broad national trends can be useful in understanding this phenomenon – if used with caution. However, trends alone are not enough to fully investigate this important issue. This is why our project has collected new data from school leaders and will be using anonymised data on individual student patterns from the Scottish Longitudinal Study (SLS) alongside the collection of rich qualitative data from selected case study schools in the new year. 

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit 

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