Exams for S3 pupils defy spirit of the curriculum

Minsters insist the practice must end in the name of broad general education

Emma Seith

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Thousands of last year's S3 students - the cohort destined to be the first to sit new National qualifications in 2014 - sat exams at the end of last year in a practice that the Scottish government has made clear it wants consigned to the history books.

Ministers have repeatedly said that all students should enjoy a broad general education to the end of S3, with no need for qualifications to boost motivation.

But while results landed on the doorsteps of far fewer Scottish households on Tuesday - 150,986, down from 158,908 in 2012 - largely because of the fall in the number of candidates being entered early for qualifications, it was clear that many schools had continued the practice.

S3 pupils sat 6 per cent of Standard grades, amounting to 3,336 candidates; 4 per cent of Intermediate 1 courses (1,666 candidates); and 2 per cent of Intermediate 2 courses (1,406 candidates).

The Scottish government said it was unconcerned by the figures and that there was nothing to stop early entries in "exceptional circumstances".

But Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, said the figures reflected the insecurity and lack of confidence that many schools still feel about Curriculum for Excellence and the Nationals.

Concerns remain about how well learning in S1 to S3 will chime with the National courses to be embarked upon next year in S4, she said. There were also worries about whether teachers are ready to deliver the Nationals, given that teaching unions had long pushed for a delay.

"Some concern about major reform is par for the course, but I don't think the government handled the actual process of implementing Curriculum for Excellence at all well," Ms Smith said.

The EIS union congratulated pupils and teachers on record-breaking exam pass rates, but called on the Scottish government for adequate funding to deliver the Nationals. A number of issues around funding for materials remain, according to EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan.

The concerns were raised this week after exams body the Scottish Qualifications Authority reported that a higher proportion of students than ever before had passed Standard grade, Intermediate, Higher and Advanced Higher.

The pass rate for Higher rose by 0.5 percentage points to 77.4 per cent - it is the seventh year in a row that the proportion has risen.

An early trawl of the figures in Scottish Borders revealed that results had remained steady, which came as a relief to head of schools Yvonne McCracken.

"Because of the uncertainty there has been and the additional pressure teachers are feeling in relation to Curriculum for Excellence, I had concerns it might impact on the youngsters," she said. "A lot of credit is due to teachers and leadership teams for maintaining that focus on teaching and learning and attainment."

East Renfrewshire Council - the only authority that has opted to delay the introduction of the new qualifications - was celebrating "outstanding" and "record-breaking" results. A total of 39 per cent of pupils achieved five or more Highers, compared with 32 per cent last year, said Fiona Morrison, head of the education service, schools performance and provision.

She attributed the success to fine analysis of data and benchmarking, early intervention, promoting achievement, creating the right culture and high expectations for all.

Fife Council had also tried to make the best possible use of data to drive up attainment and its exam performance had improved, said head of education, Donna Manson.

Last year, it focused its efforts on improving S4 pupils' performance, even emailing heads the names of pupils who it believed were not achieving their potential by the end of S3, based on their performance at P7.

The authority had hoped this would increase the proportion of pupils attaining five or more awards at SCQF Level 5 (equivalent to Credit Standard grade). But while performance had improved, it was not yet clear why, Ms Manson said.

"Some schools had tremendous results, but others that worked just as hard and put in place a similar range of strategies and interventions did not get that," she said. "The key for us now is what we learn from this."


In numbers

150,986 - number of candidates receiving results this week.

308,243 - entries for Standard grade, which ran for the last time this year.

77.4% - proportion of candidates passing Higher.

8.5% - increase in the proportion of candidates passing Access 2, the most significant rise in pass rates this year.

36.3% - rise in proportion of candidates sitting Chinese languages qualifications since 2010.

12 - the age of Agnijo Banerjee from Dundee, who achieved an A grade in Higher maths.

Photo credit: Getty

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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