JUDGING Scotland’s education system by the number of subjects pupils sit in S4 is a mistake, according to Education Secretary John Swinney.

In an interview with The Herald, Mr Swinney said Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was designed to allow a much greater degree of flexibility than previous systems.

And while he accepts there are concerns from some subject specialists about a squeeze in S4, he believes this is partly down to the much greater choice offered to pupils under CfE in terms of alternative courses and qualifications.

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Mr Swinney was speaking as concerns have been raised about a reduction in the number of National 5 qualifications on offer in many schools.

The current debate centres on the fact that under previous curriculum models able pupils would routinely sit eight or nine Standard Grades in S4 before identifying the five Highers they would take in S5.

However, figures from the Reform Scotland think tank show a majority of schools now only offer six subjects in the fourth year of secondary school because of timetabling difficulties following the introduction of a broader curriculum in the first three year of secondary.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh argues the impact of reduced subject choice is felt most keenly by learners who leave school at S4 with fewer qualifications than previously might have been the case, typically those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

And specialists representing modern languages, social subjects and some sciences argue their subject are being squeezed out.

But Mr Swinney told The Herald: “It is an important question being posed about whether there is narrowing as a consequence of the subject choices being made and the nature of the curriculum, but we have to have a much broader look at what the curriculum is offering.

“I understand the view, but I disagree with it because I don’t think it is the critical test of the value of our education system. It is a mistake to look at one particular moment in the senior phase because we have to look at it in totality.

“There are various curriculum models designed around the country which in my view deliver breadth for young people, but perhaps not in the fashion that breadth was delivered when I was going through the education system in the 1970s and early 1980s.”

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Mr Swinney said he had no issue with the current variety in S4, with a majority of schools offering six subjects, but some allowing pupils to sit eight or and nine.

“What matters to me is that schools should be satisfied that the curriculum model they take forward has been the subject of active dialogue with their pupils and communities and that they are satisfying themselves as professional educators that the model they deploy fulfils what we expect of our schools,” he said.

“That will lead to a variety of models and that doesn’t trouble me one bit because I want to have an empowered school system and if we have an empowered system I accept that will lead to variety.

“If the judgement that a school community has come to is to sit seven, eight or nine National 5 qualifications, in dialogue with parents and pupils, then that is a matter for them and that is a perfectly credible curriculum model.

“Schools are also presenting pupils for six qualifications in S4 and if parents are comfortable with that ... then that is another option.”

Mr Swinney said pupils now had a greater choice than ever before to develop wider skills - although he accepts the benefits of these are not as well known as they could be.

He said: “I don’t see a narrowing of choice in Scottish education. I see a blossoming of choice. The options presented to young people now are colossal. They are different to the options available when John Swinney was making his subject choices in 1978 at Forrester High School, but hugely broader than has ever been the case in the past.

“Is there enough awareness of that out there in the general debate? I would have to accept the answer is no and I have got to do something about that.”

Mr Swinney also appeared to rule out a return to his Education Bill, shelved last year after a lack of political support.

Instead, he is working with councils to place greater power in the hands of headteachers.

He said: “I think there is cultural change happening in Scottish education. I can see that in the way in which schools look to me to be more empowered and that is what the evidence from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education is finding in analysis and inspection reports, so I think we are making progress on that journey. I will take stock and report to parliament.”