03 SES 02 A, Curriculum Comparison Studies
This paper presents and compares Portugal and Scotland’s student perspectives about their choices, aspirations and first impressions of the curriculum at the entrance of upper secondary education, framing this topic within curriculum policy development. Its aim is to discuss how different levels of flexibility in educational tracks of upper secondary education affect student choices and educational aspirations.
Upper secondary education is frequently the ultimate period of educational tracking within schooling (European Commission, 2019). Its curricula differ between countries due to features of balance between general and vocational learning, degree of compulsion versus choice, number of areas typically studied, and inclusion of transversal or generic learning. Portugal has adhered to a 12 years compulsory schooling (age 18) as a response to early school leaving (Araújo, Magalhães, Rocha, & Macedo, 2014), whereas in Scotland, students are obliged to stay in school for 10 years (age 16). These two education systems are also different in terms of curriculum flexibility and possibilities for personalization for students.
In Portugal students experience a common general education up until the 9th year of schooling (age 15), when they have to choose a whole three years’ pre-determined study programme (general or vocational). Though there is an ongoing political reform favouring curriculum flexibility in schools (Mouraz, & Cosme, 2021), upper secondary education is still shaped by a long tradition of strong dualization and little diversification between general and vocational tracks (Álvares, 2018), as well as impoverished learning experiences due to constraints of the heavy weight of national exams in the access to higher education (OECD, 2018).
In Scotland, subject choices are also made at the age of 15, when students choose between six to eight courses to add to English, Math and Physical Education as compulsory. With the argument of facilitating learning progression, many schools are asking students to anticipate subject choices as early as at the age of 13, as well as reducing the number of studied courses to gain in study time. As a consequence, there is strong evidence of curriculum narrowing at the entrance of upper secondary education and of major differences amongst schools in both range and provision of subjects (Iannelli, & Duta, 2018; Shapira & Priestley, 2019), fuelling a national debate about its potential consequences in the students’ future choices, enrolments and educational and social trajectories.
Transition to upper secondary education is a crucial point in students’ educational trajectories. The choices students make at this point carry academic and professional aspirations in some degree that may mismatch adolescence timings for individual identity and personal development (Vieira, Pappámikail, & Nunes, 2012). New experiences often entail changes in identity and personal goals (Diseth & Samdal, 2014), with consequences for the students’ educational aspirations (Hegna, 2014). In addition, a need to invest students with specific qualifications and certification frequently adds several forms of external assessment to this period. Assessments shape the students' experience of a sudden increase in the demanded volume and rigour of coursework, particularly in academic courses (Torres & Mouraz, 2015). At a social level, a change of school or year group can sometimes cause distress and a sense of lacking emotional support (De Wit, Karioja, & Rye, 2010).
This led to a study of students’ perceptions about school and course choices and first impressions of the curriculum at the entrance of upper secondary, in Portugal and Scotland, through a cross-analysis of data from focus groups and surveys. We sought to compare and problematize issues of compulsory schooling, flexibility and choice that underpin these two education systems, and how they shape students aspirations and engagement with school in this important transition of schooling.
The study involved two data collection phases. First, there was an exploratory phase, of a more qualitative and interpretive nature, in which several focus group discussions were developed in different school settings, mostly rural/urban and academic/vocational. Nevertheless, correspondence between Portuguese and Scottish school settings was not possible due to the very different structure of both the educational system and the school organization. For instance, while in Portugal there are exclusively vocational education schools, in Scotland there are further education colleges that offer several levels of vocational education in different schemes, particularly, in partnerships with high schools. The main dimensions covered in the focus group discussions were the entrance in upper secondary education, with specific emphasis on school and course choices and first impressions of the curricular structure of the courses in the beginning of upper secondary education. In Portugal, 6 focus groups were organized in 4 schools, comprising 2 high schools and 2 vocational education schools. In Scotland, 7 focus groups were organized, comprising 4 high schools and 2 colleges offering vocational educational courses in partnerships with high schools. Data was subjected to a content analysis using NVivo software. A second phase was more descriptive and of a quantitative nature, in which a survey was piloted in all the same schools in which the focus group discussions were organized, but not necessarily with the same students, as in the case of Portugal, data from the two phases was collected in 2 different school years. The questionnaire collected information regarding family and personal features, school trajectory, entrance in upper secondary education and perceptions about the experienced curriculum in upper secondary education. The questions regarding main influences and reasons for course choices were multiple-choice questions with an open option. To collect the students’ perceptions about the experienced curriculum in upper secondary education, a 5 point Likert-scale of agreement with 11 items was designed. We retrieved 185 completed questionnaires from 4 Portuguese high schools and 186 completed questionnaires from 5 Scottish high schools. Details from the participants will be provided in the paper presentation. Collected data was subjected to a descriptive statistics analysis using SPSS software.
Data analysis allowed to verify that different degrees of flexibility in the study programs in Portugal and Scotland shape distinctive degrees of complexity in the nets of factors that students point as shapers of their school, program and course choices. In Portugal, the choice of a specific study program often implies a choice and change of school, since schools offer different study programmes, particularly on vocational tracks. In Scotland, the choice of subjects is framed by subjects students had previous been enrolled in. In both education systems, the experiences of students in more academic subjects, as well as their aspirations, are highly constrained by the demands and pressures of high-stakes assessments, whether they are intended for qualifications purposes (case of Scotland), or to access to higher education (case of Portugal). In line, student impressions of the curriculum reflect a persistent focus on disciplinary knowledge rather than on skills and capacities, many times contradicting values underpinning curriculum policies (Priestley & Sinnema, 2014). As a consequence, some Portuguese students refer to select certain study programmes as a move away from more demanding and higher status subjects, which also narrows future opportunities. In the same line, and with a curriculum narrowing in the number of courses, Scottish students who also move away from certain more demanding and higher status subjects also end up being constrained in their aspirations to future courses and professions, since there has been moderate evidence of the improvement of chances of being future employed in the enrolment in subjects such as Maths and Business (Iannelli & Duta, 2018). Evidently, this affects the students’ experience throughout upper secondary education and raises concerns around how existing inequalities between young peoples’ opportunities at school and work may be reinforced. Findings and implications for educational policies will be further discussed.
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