Learned Societies’ Group response to Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry into subject choice at secondary school

The Learned Societies’ Group on Scottish STEM Education (LSG) welcomed the opportunity to respond to the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry into subject choice at the secondary level. The LSG continues to monitor the impact of the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and the new national qualifications on uptake of the STEM subjects. It is keen to ensure that learners can continue to take up and progress in STEM subjects as part of a broad curriculum offering. Through its member organisations, the LSG has links to networks of STEM teachers in Scotland. It is therefore well placed to contribute to STEM developments in schools.

The introduction of CfE and the new national qualifications has undoubtedly coincided with a narrowing of the secondary curriculum, most notably in S4 where six qualification courses is the most common approach. The LSG is particularly concerned about the implications of narrowing of the curriculum for the study of the STEM subjects in S4-6 in the context of providing opportunities for learners to experience a broad curriculum.

The number of candidates presenting for STEM qualifications has declined over the last five years. While demographic change is a factor, the changing structure of the senior phase, especially the reduction in subject choice at S4, would appear to be a key factor. Given that the total number of Higher entries increased between 2013 and 2018, it might have been reasonable to expect to see an increase in STEM entries. However, the data showed a decrease in the uptake of STEM subjects at Higher level relative to other subjects.

Progression on to many STEM degree programmes is facilitated by students having studied multiple STEM subjects to Higher and Advanced Higher level. There is, therefore, a risk that reduced course options at S4 closes down both future learning pathways in STEM and subsequent career options.

Curriculum structures within the Broad General Education will have a strong bearing on the extent to which learners are prepared for the qualification courses that follow. There is a need to consider the coherency of the school learner journey and progression pathways as a whole.

The availability of subject specialist teachers is a key factor in enabling schools to offer a broad range of subjects. Computing, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics are among the subjects with the lowest teacher replenishment rates. The LSG firmly believes that there is a need for improved data on teacher shortages and vacancies in Scotland in order to support accurate teacher workforce planning. The modelling that underpins teacher workforce planning should include a subject-specific component.

A prominent issue for the teaching of the sciences is the practice of multi-course teaching of courses (i.e. where two or more distinct courses e.g. National 4 and 5 are taught simultaneously in one class). Science teachers have expressed concern that multi-course teaching does not allow them to fully support the needs and aspirations of pupils undertaking different levels of national qualifications. While the Scottish Government, Education Scotland and SQA recognise the challenges posed by multi-course teaching, it is not clear what action is being taken to address this issue.