The controversial Scottish National 4 inflicts an “utter injustice” on tens of thousands of young people, critics have claimed, after figures suggested far lower take-up than for previous qualifications.
Concerns have grown that N4 is viewed by both pupils and employers as a “Mickey Mouse” qualification – in the words of one headteacher – because it does not include an external exam.
The N4 debate was reignited after a number of submissions to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, including one from a teacher who said pupils were “demotivated” because their work was not “‘important enough’ to send away for marking”.
An analysis by education academic Lindsay Paterson also showed that there were only 115,000 awards at N4 in 2016. This was down 36 per cent from a combined 179,000 for N4’s predecessor qualifications, Standard Grade general and Intermediate 1, in 2012.
The number of awards at N4 has also fallen from 122,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, awards at the higher-level National 5 were holding up relatively well, Professor Paterson said.
He argued that the contrasting figures could be attributed to N4’s lack of external assessment, which was giving it “lower status in the eyes of pupils, parents and teachers”.
Such evidence sparked anger in Parliament from Labour’s Johann Lamont, a former teacher, who condemned the “utter injustice towards a whole range of young people who no longer have external certification”. N4 contrasted unfavourably with the now-defunct Standard Grade qualification, Ms Lamont said, which had a philosophy of “certification for all” and included external exams at all levels.
At the recent School Leaders Scotland (SLS) conference, when SQA chief executive Janet Brown was asked if an external exam might be introduced to N4. The idea is being explored but, she said, it was not “the right thing” to “leap into an external exam”.
School leaders appear split: while some agree that N4 undermines the egalitarian tradition of Scottish education, others say that internal assessment sits well with the college courses that many N4 candidates will undertake later.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “It is important not to focus solely on the possibility of an external assessment as there are other factors to consider. Internal assessment is widely used in a range of qualifications, including HNCs, that are respected by employers, further and higher education institutions.”
The debate comes after TESS last week revealed proposals that would make it easier for students to pass National 5 and Highers, by extending the range of the D grade and adding an E grade.
Dr Brown, meanwhile, conceded last week that education was in danger of sinking in a "sea of jargon".
This is an edited version of an article in the 2 December edition of TESS. Subscribers can view the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. You can also download the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. TESS magazine is available at all good newsagents.