Attainment plummets under new qualification regime

New exam body figures show that attainment has dropped by a third since Standard grades were replaced by Nationals

Attainment plummets under new qualification regime

Official figures have exposed the full impact of new qualifications on Scottish pupils’ attainment by showing that the proportion of pupils attaining passes at the levels equivalent to the old Standard grade qualifications has dropped by a third.

The figures from exam body the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are revealed in papers submitted to the Scottish parliament’s education and skills committee, which today is continuing its inquiry into whether the curriculum in Scottish schools is narrowing.

The statistics show that overall in 2013 – the year before the new qualifications were introduced – there were 555,631 entries for national qualifications at Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) levels 3-5, the levels covered by the old foundation, general and credit Standard grade. However, entries at those levels under the new qualifications regime had dropped to 415,708 by last year, a fall of 25 per cent.

Meanwhile, attainment volume – the number of A-to-C passes at those levels – went from 508,453 to 339,516 over the same period, a fall of 33 per cent.


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The SCQF is Scotland’s national qualification framework. It has 12 levels that indicate the level of difficulty of a particular qualification, with level 12 equivalent to a doctorate.

SCQF levels 3-5 equate to the old Standard grade foundation, general and credit qualification typically sat in the fourth year of secondary. The Standard grades were replaced in 2014 with National 3, National 4 and National 5, developed to support Curriculum for Excellence.

In a commentary accompanying the figures, the SQA admits to a “decrease in the volume of attainment”.

It goes on to say that this could be down to “a number of factors” that are “outwith the remit of SQA”, including the extension of the broad general education from two to three years; the reduction in the school roll in S3 and S4; and variations in the number of subjects offered in individual schools and local authorities.

The school roll did drop over the period, but by way of a comparison, the S4 roll fell from 53,895 in 2013 to 51,175 in 2018 – a fall of just 5 per cent.

Vocational qualifications, meanwhile, have increased in popularity. However, even when the rise in pupils passing SQA Awards, National Progression Awards and National Certificates at the same levels is taken into consideration, attainment in 2018 was still down almost 30 per cent on 2013.

The figures also show that at SCQF level 5 – the equivalent of National 5 and the old Standard grade credit – the reduction in passes in languages, social subjects and technology subjects have been significantly higher than the average fall across all subjects.

Overall attainment at SCQF level 5 dropped by 18.4 per cent between 2013 and 2018, but attainment in technology subjects dropped 40.5 per cent; attainment in languages was down 32.8 per cent; and attainment in social subjects fell 23.4 per cent.

The SQA said: “The figures indicate the number of candidates obtaining SQA qualifications in languages, technology and social subjects at SCQF level 5 has decreased over this period, both across the Standard grade to CfE transition year, and over the period 2014-18, when the new qualifications were in use.”

The figures are bound to fan the flames of the debate that is raging in Scottish education about whether the dip in the number of subjects pupils can take in S4 is significant.

Some argue it is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and affecting attainment. The Scottish government counters that the last three years of secondary should be viewed as a continuum and that it is the clutch of qualifications that pupils leave school with that is important, not how many they can attain in a single year.

However, the figures show that Scottish pupils are attaining fewer qualifications and that “both entries and passes have reduced over time and at a faster rate than the roll”, as the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) put it in its briefing for MSPs.

The SQA figures show the biggest change since the new National qualifications were introduced is in the number of qualifications being attained at SCQF level 3 – the level of foundation Standard grade under the old regime and now National 3 – with attainment dropping by 74 per cent between 2013, the last year of the old qualifications regime, and 2018.

Over the same period at SCQF level 4 – the level of general Standard grade under the old regime and now National 4 – attainment dropped by almost 40 per cent.

The SQA said that: “Since 2014, relatively few candidates have been obtaining qualifications at SCQF level 3…It is possible that candidates are being entered at a later stage, or at higher SCQF levels than was the case previously, for other qualifications and awards, or for other reasons.”

Higher and Advanced Higher bucked the trend, with both attainment and entries rising. Attainment at SCQF level 6 – the equivalent of Higher – rose by around 4 per cent and entries by around 5 per cent between 2013 and 2018.

But these rises were not large enough to compensate for the dramatic falls in attainment at the lower levels.

The education and skills committee will continue its subject choice inquiry today, with outgoing SQA chief executive Janet Brown giving evidence.

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