Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Why subject choice matters

Professor Emer Smyth, from the Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, delivered a talk: Why and How National Institutional Factors Matter as part of the AQMeN event 'Social Inequalities in Education`.

She compared the Irish and Scottish system of selecting pupils for the transition to higher education which at upper secondary level has key differences.

She believes there is much more flexibility in the Scottish system, not only in the type of subjects that students study but also in the number of subjects they study. It is also the case that there are no compulsory subjects. Ireland has three: mathematics, English and Irish. Yet in Scotland subjects play a role in selection to higher education especially for the more prestigious universities. In Ireland subject choice plays a relatively minor role. It is the grades which students obtain in their six best subjects which are much more important for selection.

These differences in the two education systems have consequences.

In Scotland there is a clear social class gradient which shows that students from middle class backgrounds are more likely to take the facilitating subjects. Facilitating subjects are the ones that universities are looking for. Pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds tend to opt for more quasi-vocational classes.

Inequality is explained by the subjects that the social classes take and the grades they achieve. Subject choice is a bigger factor in class differences.


At upper secondary level, subject choice explains more of the social gap with regard to entry to higher education in Scotland than in Ireland.

Greater flexibility in Scotland has had an unintended consequence for HE in the number and type of subjects taken. Early subject choice in Scotland has had very significant long term implications for the pathways that are open to, or closed to, certain groups of young people.


There is a further complexity. Although personalised pathways are put forward as part of Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, it is easier to discard academic subjects for some pupils than it is to take the academic subjects that they wish to study. Places are restricted by the school. Some pupils are reduced to tears because even when they are allowed to study a subject they are told they cannot sit the examination. In the latter stages of their education some children have to travel to hubs because their school does not offer the subject at all. All of this is a disincentive to some students. These problems do not occur to the same extent in middle class areas. After all, the adults would be up in arms if they did.

So what the Scottish government is saying about closing the attainment gap is not matched by what they are doing through Curriculum for Excellence.

It means the idea of homing in on two and three-year-olds as a way to deal with social class differences is complete nonsense and will never solve the problems they have created.

No comments:

Post a Comment