What’s the reality of teaching multiple courses in one classroom, and is this approach impacting student success in Scotland?

An illustration of crossing paths

Source: © Andrea Ebert/Ikon Images

It’s not unusual for chemistry teachers in Scotland to be teaching N4/5 and Highers in one class. What’s the multi-course experience for teachers and learners?

Almost half of chemistry teachers in Scotland must balance the needs of pupils working towards different courses within the same class. The growing prevalence of multi-course teaching has led to teachers, unions and professional organisations all expressing concerns, particularly for science subjects.

Multi-course teaching involves teaching a specialist subject course at more than one national qualification level within the same class: for example, chemistry N4, N5 and Higher. Multi-course teaching is cited as an issue that affects the experience of chemistry education in Scotland, says Daniele Gibney, Programme manager for curriculum, quaifications and assessment at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

‘An impossible workload and a frustration that they are unable to concentrate on all the pupils’

In an unpublished 2019 survey by the RSC’s Education Division Committee in Scotland, chemistry teachers in Scotland said they were concerned about increased workloads and the quality of teaching in these classes. The survey found multi-course teaching took place in almost half of all secondary school chemistry classes, involving mostly N4/N5 combinations (ages 15–16). Around 93% of classes that contained N4 students were multi-course ones as were around 66% that contained N5 and 24% that contained Higher students (typically ages 16–18).

Short-changing students

Multi-course teaching is having an ‘inordinate impact’ on STEM subjects, according to the Learned Societies Group on Scottish STEM Education (LSG) in its response in December 2020 to the Scottish Government on the independent review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

‘Part of the problem arises because the CfE has completely different curriculums for N4, N5 and Higher in the same subject but uses the same titles for each unit covering a similar part of, for example, chemistry at the different levels,’ says David Cole-Hamilton, interim convenor, LSG for STEM Education. ‘Predictably, this has allowed head teachers to assume that the content is similar so that different levels can be taught at the same time and in the same space by the same teacher. [This is especially challenging] where laboratory work is concerned, which needs supervision in a different room. Possible solutions include changing the titles of the units at different levels to differentiate them or adopting a system where the curriculum of N4 is a subset of that of N5.’

‘In many cases, the alternative to not running multi-level/course classes would be not to offer a course at all’

The CfE chemistry courses are designed to be completed in one year, so it’s extremely challenging to teach more than one course in one class, agrees Gill Berkeley, chair of the RSC’s Education Division Committee in Scotland. In an N4/N5 combined class, teachers must prepare two sets of resources for every lesson. Committee members are also worried that students may be put off taking a STEM subject because of multi-course delivery, she adds.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) campaigns against multi-course teaching, arguing that it is unfair to pupils and teachers. Teachers are faced with ‘an impossible workload and a frustration that they are unable to concentrate on all the pupils all of the time,’ says Seamus Searson, SSTA General Secretary. ‘Pupils are being short-changed and most parents are unaware of the situation their children are facing in school.’

In a 2019 survey, the SSTA was surprised to find a high number of multi-course classes in large urban schools whereas they were expecting to see smaller rural schools with a larger proportion of multi-course classes. ‘The practice of multi-course teaching has wrongly become the norm in most schools in Scotland,’ says Seamus. However, the recent, independent OECD review of the Scottish curriculum did not propose any changes to the practice of multi-course teaching citing limited expression of concerns relative to other issues from stakeholders and teachers alike.

However, Education Scotland says their inspections have yet to provide any firm evidence of educational disadvantage of multi-course teaching. They say it is a ‘common approach’ to maximise choice for pupils, in particular in smaller schools in rural areas, and has been used for a long time in schools to establish viable class sizes. ‘In many cases, owing to timetabling and staffing factors, the alternative to not running multi-level/course classes would be not to offer a course at all,’ said an Education Scotland spokesperson. ‘Schools are often not in a position to create additional, single-level/course classes.’

What’s it like on the ground?

One NQT teacher (who wants to remain anonymous) has had her first experience of multi-course teaching at a medium-sized state high school and is not in favour. ‘No chemistry teacher I have ever spoken to likes teaching mixed-level classes, thinks it is a good option for learners, or recommends it. The courses were simply not designed to run side by side,’ she says. ‘But without adequate teaching staff (not just in small schools but in large ones too) learners are timetabled to enable the school to run with the fewest teachers possible rather than the numbers that allow the learners access to the appropriate courses.’ What’s more, she’s noticed that some senior leaders may defend the approach if they have experience in non-science subjects that typically have more overlap in content. The solution, she believes, is for the government to fund more teachers and for schools to adjust the ratio of contact to planning hours to allow for higher quality lessons.

Lewis Fenton, who teaches at Liberton High School, Edinburgh, says multi-course teaching breaks down when it comes to understanding different levels of content as required for the more in-depth N5. ‘For example, if you are teaching radiation over a block of lessons, only the first introductory lesson applies to N4. This is where multi-coursing really hits a problem. It makes lessons and learning inefficient for the teacher and the learners.’

The modern classroom approach also makes multi-course teaching a challenge, says Lewis. ‘We are drilled to do starters, share learning intentions and success criteria, and then wrap up with a plenary. The starter and the plenary require entire class awareness and discussion. However, if there is the lack of content in N4 or they are studying completely different parts of the courses, then the lesson is fractured, a starter wouldn’t work, and the class is split.’

Teaching tips in multi-course chemistry classes

  • Plan, plan, plan.
  • Have at least one lesson a week for which the lesson starter is accessible to every pupil.
  • Try to design dedicated work for N4 students every week.
  • Encourage note-taking for N4 students to consolidate their knowledge while an N5 topic is taught to the rest of the class.
  • Use N4 unit tests as part of a whole class end-of-unit test.
  • Seek help from colleagues; one-to-one support can give struggling students a boost.

However, he says there are some positives about multi-course chemistry teaching. There is some overlap between N4 and N5, for example, in topics such as reaction rates, hydrocarbons, fertilisers and metals. ‘Practicals can be a good part of this; for example, the entire class can make slime or potato plastic as part of the course for both N4 and N5. Chemistry education is also about introducing different levels of accuracy in models, for example, starting with electrons whizzing around the nucleus (N4) to electron shells and ions (N5) to electron orbitals (Higher/Adv Higher).’

To be effective, Lewis says that each learner needs to be considered for multi-course teaching. ‘It could actually make the teacher more considerate of the needs of all the learners.’ Furthermore, a dual coursing set-up allows students to be observed and potentially moved between levels throughout the year.