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National 4 is 'credible', insists Scottish exams chief

Uptake of under-fire National 4 falls sharply, but qualifications chief predicts that it will become more popular if changes are made

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Uptake of under-fire National 4 falls sharply, but qualifications chief predicts that it will become more popular if changes are made

The chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority has predicted a bright future for the much-maligned National 4, despite another steep drop in the number of students who take it.

New figures show that N4 entries have fallen by nearly 7,000 (5.6 per cent) since 2016, and by nearly 15,000 (11.3 per cent) since 2015 – in the same two-year period N5 entries have increased slightly – but the SQA’s Janet Brown told Tes Scotland that “it will become a credible qualification [and] it is credible in some spaces now”.

N4’s lack of an external exam and simple pass-or-fail structure has left many teachers and pupils sceptical about the merits of the qualification, which was introduced in 2013-14.

But Dr Brown, who spoke to Tes Scotland as students across Scotland received their SQA exam and course results, made a stout defence of N4; with modifications, and as teachers improved their understanding of the appropriate qualifications for their pupils, uptake might even increase in years to come, she suggested.

She said a range of possible changes was being considered by the national Working Group on Assessment and Qualifications (ANQ), including an external exam at N4, which would be a controversial move because N4 was designed as a fairer reflection of the abilities of pupils who might struggle in exams.

'Not always viewed as a major achievement'

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, told Tes Scotland that the falling N4 numbers reflected the status of the qualification.

“What is very sad is that N4 is a major achievement for some pupils but, unfortunately, it’s not always viewed that way outside of schools,” he said.

He suggested that an external assessment – rather than an exam – might lend it more credibility with parents and employers.

Mike Corbett, an English teacher and past president of the NASUWT Scotland teaching union, said the steep drop in N4 entries “bears out what we’ve been saying for some time: there is a lack of credibility with National 4 in the eyes of many parents and pupils, which leads to an insistence on some pupils being presented for – and often failing – National 5, despite the warnings of teachers”.

EIS union general secretary Larry Flanagan, however, said fewer N4 presentations was “actually good news” if it reflected less dual presentation – the practice of pupils taking both N5 and N4 as teachers struggle to decide on the most appropriate level.

Overall, said Mr Flanagan, teachers and pupils “should be proud of this strong set of results” in SQA courses, with schools continuing to “perform well despite teachers having to deliver the new qualifications in extremely challenging circumstances”.

This is an edited version of an article in the 11 August edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes Scotland magazine is available at all good newsagents

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