Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Unintended Consequences: The Reform Scotland report in a wider context – Dr Jim Scott


As well as adopting the title of my 2014 doctoral thesis[1], the Reform Scotland report on National 4s and 5s helpfully retraces and reinforces some of the major findings of my 2015 OECD evidence paper[2], concentrating on Fourth Year (S4) curricular structures and the consequences, intended or otherwise, of local authority/school choices in this context.   Covering over 300 schools, it finds almost a half of schools offering 6 courses, a third 7, a sixth 8 and a few offering 5 or 9.  My larger, slightly more recent sample of 350 schools suggests the percentages are:

5 courses: 1.5%;
6: 44.5%;
7: 34%;
8: 20% and
9: 0% although this remains worryingly fluid 6 years after the launch of “Curriculum for Excellence” (CfE).

Reform Scotland examines the resulting disparity of pupil opportunity, suggesting – as I did – that it has the potential to inhibit attempts to “close the gap” in attainment, whether between ablest and weakest or richest and poorest.  My findings on S4 CfE results demonstrate that lesser ability pupils are the greatest victims – not necessarily of CfE itself, but certainly of how it has been implemented – although the more able have also experienced problems.

Unfortunately, Reform Scotland lacks data to illustrate its concerns about how the curriculum has narrowed in schools offering 6 (or, worse, 5) courses.  Although there are (thankfully) diminishing numbers offering 5 courses, it is important to be aware that a “6-course curriculum” may mean several things.  Some schools are offering a 6-5-4 curriculum with 6 courses in S4 followed by 5 in S5 and 4 in S6, others are (at least theoretically) offering a 6-6-6 curriculum, presumably driven by timetabling efficiency rather than pupil needs, as this is most unlikely to generate 18 qualifications for either the most able or the least able.  Others, however, are offering a 0-6-6 curriculum with no qualifications taken during S4, generating at most 12 qualifications – but only if teaching, quality assurance and performance tracking are all of the highest level.  Analysis of HMI reports does not suggest that they find any 5 or 6-course models to shine in comparison to schools effectively offering seven (or possibly eight).

Perhaps the bigger issue is not curricular narrowing but curricular distortion.  My figures above for 5-8 course S4 structures would cause a drop of 16% in attainment this year against the 2013 pre-CfE figures.  Last year the structurally generated drop from 2013 was 13%, but the drop in enrollments for S4 courses was 17% and in attainment a worrying 24% (almost twice the drop caused by curricular narrowing).  There are two issues:

  1. Some subjects have fared much worse than the 13% structural drop e.g. French and German attainment have dropped by 50% since 2013 – twice the already very worrying average 24% attainment drop – and the government’s flagship Gaelic (Learners) by over 60%. There are significant declines elsewhere e.g. Computing (75%), Art & Design (35%) and Geography (31%).  Even Chemistry and Physics have dropped by 27% and 20% respectively.  Some subjects are thus in a perilous state.
  1. Greatest declines have occurred amongst the least able. Although some learners have clearly moved up from Level 3 to 4 or 4 to 5, this does not balance the disappearance of two-thirds of pre-CfE level 3 attainment or a quarter of level 4.  Only at National 5 does the decline in attainment match the overall decline in enrolments.  What has happened to the missing 87,000 attainments at Levels 3 and 4?

If the situation is to be improved, several questions must be addressed:

  1. Is an attainment collapse of 24% in 3 years publicly acceptable?
  2. What has caused the second half of this collapse (and do we accept the structural cause of the first half)?
  3. Are the national expectations for progress by pupils by the end of S3 sufficiently challenging?
  4. Do the “middle layer” (OECD, 2015) of local authorities and headteachers have the capacity/capability to lead the challenging but potentially game-changing CfE programme (and why has this been eroded)?
  5. Do all teachers understand what is required of them in CfE?
  6. Are schools, headteachers and teachers consistently presenting pupils at the appropriate level?
  7. Is CfE (as currently framed) a satisfactory curricular basis? (Both OECD and I suggested not.)
  8. Does the extended 3-year BGE bring identifiable benefits that outweigh the collapse in S4 attainment?
  9. Is 6 courses in S4 (or 5, 6-6-6, 0-6-6 or 9) a desirable curricular offer to pupils of any ability?
  10. Is it appropriate that a child will be much more likely to take 6 courses if they live in an authority in the first half of the alphabet?

If the answer to a few of these is “no”, then Scotland has a problem; if the answer to many/all of these is “no” then we may have a national educational crisis.  In either case, this is not merely an issue for headteachers and directors of education (where the latter still exist).


 Dr. Jim Scott is an educational researched

[1] Unintended Consequences?  The Politico-Educational Governance of Modern Foreign Languages in Scotland 1962-2014.  Dundee: University of Dundee.

[2] Available at: