By Professor Lesley Yellowlees

MANY secondary schools in Scotland have come to rely on multi-course teaching – placing learners pursuing different levels of subject qualifications together – to teach their curriculums. However, the evidence indicates that the practice, while sometimes born of necessity, is not conducive to learning and teaching.

The Learned Societies’ Group which brings together the learned societies and professional associations in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects first drew to the attention of Scottish Government the detrimental impact of multi-course teaching in 2016. Ninety-nine point five per cent of Chemistry teacher respondents to a Royal Society of Chemistry survey felt students’ learning could be supported “not at all” or “not very well” in the context of the most common combination of multi-course teaching, combined National 5 and Higher classes.

However, the issue has received little official attention, with the Government insisting that multi-course teaching has been a longstanding feature of Scottish education. However, this fails to recognise the very different structure of the National Qualification courses compared to the previous Standard Grades.

Some may claim multi-course teaching is a necessary evil in combating teacher shortages and prohibitively small class sizes to allow pupils access to courses that would otherwise be unavailable. However, multi-course teaching is as much a problem in its own right as it is an alleged solution. In attempting to satisfy the requirements of different Stem courses simultaneously, teachers quickly find themselves spread too thin. Learners can easily get lost in the crowd or feel unstimulated as individualised attention becomes scarce.

Stem subjects are already facing a number of challenges in the classroom. There is the longstanding challenge of attracting and retaining specialist subject teachers, exacerbating the issue of multi-course teaching. Students are also facing a narrowing of the number of courses they can study at S4, with implications for their progression in the Stem subjects at school and beyond. SQA data shows a decline over the last five years in the number of students presenting for Stem courses at National Qualifications 3-5 and Higher.

The Scottish Government’s Stem Education and Training Strategy, which the learned societies support, recognises how vital a strong Stem skills base is in preparing Scotland for the challenges of the future. But that will only happen if a passion for Stem is ignited at a young age and sustained through high quality, personalised provision throughout a learner’s education.

In its recent report on subject choice, the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee lamented the fact that there was a lack of centrally available data on the prevalence and impact of multi-course teaching, especially as the learned societies had raised this with the Government more than three years ago. The Government has committed to undertake an independent review of the senior phase. This provides an opportunity to gain greater insight into multi-course teaching and its relationship to issues of teacher provision, curriculum structures, subject choice, timetabling, rates of participation in the Stem subjects and addressing educational inequalities.

The learned societies plan to contribute to the review by gathering up-to-date data on multi-course teaching across the Stem disciplines, how it is impacting Scotland’s teachers and how they can best be supported. We hope that the results of this exercise – alongside the findings of the senior phase review – will persuade Scotland’s education officials to acknowledge multi-course teaching is a real problem that needs to be addressed if we are to provide the high-quality learning and teaching experiences that both our learners and teachers deserve, and to realise Scotland’s Stem ambitions.

Professor Lesley Yellowlees is Chair of the Learned Societies’ Group on Scottish Stem Education