Scottish government knew assessment changes would disadvantage borderline pupils

Education secretary John Swinney was warned that the removal of unit assessments would leave some pupils with no fallback – but it took him six months to act

Emma Seith

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The Scottish government has known since it decided to scrap mandatory unit assessments last year that the move would leave pupils who failed the National 5 exam without a safety net, Tes Scotland can reveal.

At the end of last month, education secretary John Swinney (pictured) announced emergency measures to prevent pupils from leaving S4 with no qualifications.

The move to reintroduce unit assessments in “exceptional circumstances” followed Mr Swinney’s decision to scrap the assessments last year at the behest of the teaching unions, owing to workload concerns.

He also announced that the mark required to achieve a D grade at N5 would be lowered from 45 to 40 per cent, so that more pupils could secure a grade even if they did not pass.

However, the official report that led to unit assessments being scrapped last September – obtained by Tes Scotland through a freedom of information request – shows that the government knew from the outset that removing mandatory unit assessments at N5 would disadvantage pupils who failed the exam.

In the six months since the announcement that the assessments would be scrapped, Scottish schools have faced a period of uncertainty amid concerns that some pupils would leave school without any qualifications.

Previously, pupils who failed the N5 exam used the unit assessments to gain an N4 in a process known as “recognising positive achievement” (RPA). Last year, 14 per cent of entries at N5 resulted in a fail but more than half of these – over 23,000 entries – gained an N4 through RPA.

'Safety net' withdrawn

Concern about the withdrawal of this “fallback facility” led Aberdeenshire’s 17 secondary heads to write a joint letter to Mr Swinney in February, expressing their fears.

However, the risks have been known to the government since September, it has emerged.

The government’s proposals to scrap mandatory unit assessments at N5 and Higher were submitted to the Assessment and National Qualifications working group (ANQ), chaired by Mr Swinney, on 12 September.

The report said that there was a need “to secure recognition for candidates who might not achieve A-D” at N5 and “for whom certificated units provide an opportunity to demonstrate attainment”.

The report recommended then that the grade range should be expanded for N5; it also envisaged the introduction of an E grade – but that proposal was rejected.

According to Stephen Miller, president of secondary headteachers’ organisation School Leaders Scotland (SLS), despite Mr Swinney saying that unit assessments should only be reintroduced in “exceptional circumstances”, presenting pupils for the N5 units as well as the exam “will be more towards the norm than the exception” in some schools.

But Dr Bill Maxwell, the head of school inspection body Education Scotland, told Tes Scotland that this could result in the schools concerned being investigated.

The Scottish government said that the decision to keep in place the N4 fallback was taken “after a period of thorough consideration of feedback from key stakeholders”.

A spokesperson added: “School leaders will play an important role in ensuring this interim measure is deployed in exceptional circumstances, to support aspirational presentation for specific learners only.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 14 April 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 hereTes Scotland magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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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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