Written by Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. 

According to a report featured in The Telegraph in May, authored by Professor Jim Scott, the majority of Scottish schools are studying six or seven subjects at Nat5, rather than the eight which he describes as the ‘gold standard’. Many parents, teachers and pupils are concerned about this narrowness of choice, and in many cases it is only parental pressure that meant many schools have not cut below seven subjects. But this narrowness threatens the reputation and breadth in our world-famous education system, and severely constrains pupils’ choices at Higher and beyond.

Professor Scott’s findings closely mirror the results of the RSGS/SAGT survey of 2015, in which we revealed that 58% of schools were studying six subjects or fewer. Our conclusion then was that this represented a severe threat to Geography uptake, and this concern remains.

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is not the sole reason for this reduction in subjects. Some of it is a result of funding cuts as local authorities struggle with year-on-year reductions in funding. This background of a decade-long policy of austerity is beginning to really bite, and if anything the funding is about to get worse. This is leading to reductions in specialist teachers and teaching, amalgamation of departments and an increase in use of ‘campus’ schooling, all of which in turn is leading to huge inconsistencies between schools and between local authorities, and greatly impacting pupil choice and opportunity. As more and more power and funding are devolved to schools, the voice of parents is going to be increasingly important in steering subject numbers and choices.

However, CfE remains the major driver of this reduction in subject choice, and the reason for this is the clunky way it was developed. The content for S1-S3 was written before S4 had been resolved, so there is a lack of continuity in the subject matter, often exacerbated where S1-S3 children are not being taught Geography by a Geography teacher (or are taught any specialist subject by a non-specialist).

But most fundamentally, because of the number of hours each subject is meant to be given, there is not enough time in S4 to teach more than six or seven subjects, and even then it is rushed. There are problems with over-assessment, and these have not got any better despite recent changes.

Problems remain with over assessment in the Scottish curriculum.

Whilst many schools and local authorities have responded by cutting back to six subjects (or seven where parents have complained), there is another option. They could remove the time pressure and start ensuring the course is being taught in S3. If the courses begin earlier in S3, there is more time to cover course content, explore the subject, even carry out fieldwork. And most importantly, to teach more subjects.

So, of these two options – study less or start earlier – a large majority have chosen to study less, and around half of schools don’t start teaching Nat5’s until S4, putting pressure on time to cover course content, all serving to short-change pupil choice in the process. And if we keep choosing to study fewer subjects, we will gradually see the breadth of our education system narrow ever further, as some subjects will simply not have teachers. Beyond Geography, many other subjects and teachers share these concerns. As Professor Scott reported, “the creeping movement towards six courses has already resulted in a massive collapse in the number of youngsters studying modern languages.” If we want our children to realise their full potential and understand the breadth of learning available, we need to keep their options open and give them more choice.