By Chief Executive of RSGS, Mike Robinson

Scottish education has long been held up as a global example and is widely regarded and copied by many countries around the world. This reputation is merited from decades, if not centuries, of priority given to quality education. I am beginning to worry, however, that this historical reputation is at risk of being exactly that – historical, and the commonly held view that Scottish education is some of the best in the world, perpetuates a conceit that makes us less responsive when issues do come to light. As with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to expose cracks in those areas of our society which have been de-prioritised or starved of funds during this past decade of austerity. 

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic came along there were real concerns about the delivery of curriculum in Scottish schools – mostly through the over-strict interpretation of how the necessary hours of each subject should be taught in secondary school, leading to a constraint on the number of courses that pupils could be offered. When Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was introduced it was an ambitious and radical over haul of the previous 2+2+2 system for secondary schools – in fact, a holistic look at the whole of educational delivery from primary to end of secondary. Clearly there were failings in the previous system and the sense that something radically different was needed was very widely held. 

However, any change, especially one so fundamental, requires more time, more staff, more money and training to embed and resolve – it’s hardly going to launch as a perfect finished product. And CfE didn’t. Unfortunately, when it was finally launched it was incoherent, under-supported and especially poorly funded. Local Authorities and Government were in the thrall of austerity and budgets were being cut back everywhere. School buildings were struggling for repairs, new estate was reliant on private partnership funding (robbing long term revenue to save short term capital spending). So, at a time when more funding was needed to introduce this radical new approach, many experienced less funding, making the first years of this change more stressful, confusing and inconsistent than it ever should have been.

One of most widely held concerns is the lack of subject choice at Nat4/5. This is in large part because, if you begin a course at the beginning of S4 for which there is an exam in the following May, you can only easily fit 6 or 7 subjects in the time available. Under this system, teachers and pupils feel they are racing to get through the subject matter before May, and often sit prelims with only half to two thirds of the content covered. That is quite understandable, but it isn’t the only choice. Schools who have already begun studying Nat 5 content in S3 are much more relaxed, have less time stress and can offer more subjects. In essence, they have more time to teach. Pretty much every independent school in Scotland falls into this category and offers at least 7 or 8 subjects – an obvious rift in attainment compared to most state schools.  

So why don’t all schools simply adopt this longer time scale? Many local authorities, and in some cases some schools or clusters of schools, don’t think they can – or have decreed that they can’t. When the 2+2+2 system was overhauled it was replaced with a 3+3 system. The first 3 years of secondary are meant to be broad general education and don’t necessarily correlate with the upper stages of secondary. A literal interpretation does suggest schools should begin the content of the qualifications in S4. But squeezing all the content and prelims and assignments into 9-10 months is nigh on impossible and neither teachers nor pupils have time to breathe and develop the learning.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I firmly believed all schools should be starting the course content in S3, removing this critical time pressure and increasing the options for pupils beyond the broad general education phase. Ultimately this would also give pupils the choice to study more subjects through to Nat4/5. However, we now have the added fall-out from the pandemic. It is inconceivable that schools won’t lose further time through continued local or national lockdowns. 

Pupils have experienced less face-to-face time and more ‘self-learning’ phases than ever, and at a younger age. This is especially a problem for those facing exams in the not too distant future. Pupils entering S4 are at a huge disadvantage, having already missed months of face-to-face tuition and there is obviously a serious debate going on about how to best assess this group, in light of likely further disruption.  

It was almost impossible to cover all the exam content before the pandemic. It is utterly impractical to expect teachers and pupils to do so now. This relaxing of the rules to ensure appropriate content is being taught throughout S3 was advisable before any of this hit. Now it is absolutely vital, and it should be made mandatory as a matter of priority.