As we await the outcome of Professor Louise Hayward’s Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment, a significant piece of new educational research suggests that the pressure on Scottish secondary schools to improve exam attainment statistics is adversely affecting young people’s learning – and is actually widening the attainment gap.

The report, Choice, Attainment and Positive Destinations published by Stirling University and funded by Nuffield Research, investigates the curriculum on offer in secondary schools and the impact on young people’s choices, attainment and transitions. By analysing existing data alongside a wealth of new research information, the report confirms the conclusions of the 2021 OECD report into secondary CfE, that qualifications and assessment in the senior phase run counter to the vision and principles of CfE. Indeed, the report goes further to suggest that secondary school curriculum provision, heavily focused on attainment data, may be “counter-educational.”

The research team homes in on evidence which, it states, reveals a ”narrowing” of the curriculum at S4 and acts against breadth and balance in the curriculum. The introduction of new qualifications in 2014 saw a drop in entries overall and a decrease in the proportion of learners studying 7 or 8 subjects at S4, with numbers falling from two-thirds to less than a half. The decline in entries has been steeper in Social Subjects, Expressive Arts and Modern Languages, Choice, attainment and positive destinations than in “core” topics like Maths and English, and CfE’s intention of learners accessing a broad range of qualifications spread between S4 and S5 has not transpired.

Significantly, evidence indicates “social stratification” in curricular narrowing – that learners in deprived areas are disproportionately and negatively impacted. Schools in more advantaged areas are likelier to provide the traditional 8 SCQF 5 qualifications, which increases the prospects of meeting university entry requirements. Furthermore, whilst there has been a decrease in SCQF level 3 and 4 qualifications overall, in advantaged areas this is matched by an increase in level 5 qualifications. In disadvantaged areas, however, no such corresponding increase is observed.

The report acknowledges that, since 2013, attainment has risen, as the proportion of learners passing exams has increased – but this is based on fewer entries. The authors assert that this is at the cost of wider attainment and transition to further study and post-school destinations. They conclude that learners are steered towards, or selected for, studying subjects where they will get a pass, regardless of their own interests or preference, and that “low-performing” subjects in schools are effectively “abolished.”

The OECD’s warnings regarding the damaging “back-wash” of an exam-centric system on the BGE are confirmed by the Stirling study. It finds an alarming degree of “fragmentation,” with some young people in S1 taught by 15 or more subject teachers in a typical week. The report points out that whilst this is certainly “broad,” it is not the coherent, connected learning envisaged by CfE; rather, the BGE is utilised as a “taster” for senior phase subjects. Further, the study cites examples of very early subject choice with learners “channelled” into senior phase courses as early as S1.

The report’s most worrying finding is one that will be recognised by many teachers, including Headteachers, in secondary schools: the system is driven by demands for “the right kind of data, particularly relating to attainment.” The authors describe a “culture of performativity” where outputs in terms of exam results and other attainment data are the over-riding metric of success. A feature of this culture is the tension between teachers’ professional values on the one hand and pressure from the Scottish Government, Education Scotland, and Local Authorities, on the other, to raise attainment. The report details what this looks like in schools: pressure on teachers to select content and pedagogy to “teach to the test;” young people “pulled” from courses if they appear likely to fail, or entered for lower level courses to improve school data performance; young people left behind as schools target resources on SCQF level 5 courses in order to boost figures in relation to number of learners attaining 5 National 5s and 5 Highers; and classes featuring multi-course teaching, which do not meet the needs of learners with Additional Support Needs.

Key recommendations made by the authors echo the EIS’s own contributions to the ongoing Education Reform debate in Scotland. Chief among these are decisive reform of the current 3-year exam treadmill; a rebalancing of assessment towards more continuous assessment and fewer high-stakes exams; a reduction in bureaucracy related to attainment and assessment; an increase in teacher non-contact time to allow teachers to allow more time for marking and preparation; a national, resourced programme of CLPL; a more inclusive approach to young people’s achievements; and greater support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds in making curriculum choices that suit their abilities, preferences and aspirations.

Policy makers – who talk warmly of an empowered system and of closing the poverty-related achievement and attainment gap – would do well to heed the findings of this valuable new research.