The pass rate has dropped at National 5 – the qualification where most subjects had longer exams from 2017-18.
Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) data published this morning – on the same day that 135,000 students are due to get their exam results – showed the National 5 pass rate for A-C grades falling to 77.4 per cent from 79.5 per cent after barely shifting in previous years.
Longer exams were introduced in most subjects – and some subjects which never previously had an exam were given one – after the scrapping of unit assessments by education secretary John Swinney under pressure from teaching unions. The move was designed to reduce workload.
Meanwhile, there has been another big drop in the number of students taking National 4 courses. The qualification has struggled to establish itself amid concerns that it has no external exam.
The 106,033 entries at National 4 marks a steep fall since the 130,876 entries in 2015. SQA chief executive Janet Brown said today that there was a problem with the perception of National 4’s value. But she added that one factor in this year’s drop in National 4 entries was the broadening of grade D at National 5, meaning that fewer students would fail at that level and gain a National 4 instead.
The A-C pass rate at Higher, Scotland’s flagship qualification, has dipped slightly. In the third year since only a new version of Higher was available, the A-C pass rate is 76.8 per cent, down from 77.0 per cent in 2017 and 77.2 per cent in 2016.
Some subjects showed up more strongly than other. There was a rise in students taking Higher English, for example, despite an overall drop in Higher candidates when adding all subjects together.
There will be some concerns around French, for which entries dropped at every level from National 4 to Advanced Higher. The sharpest drop was at National 5, from 9,078 entries in 2017 to 8,145 this year.
'Hard work and dedication'
Dr Brown said the exams had gone smoothly this year and that Scotland’s students benefited from a stable system.
“Today’s results are testament to the hard work and dedication of the thousands of candidates across Scotland and we’d like to congratulate everyone for their effort,” she said.
Labour and the Greens have raised concerns about the decline in Higher pass rates.
In 2016 the new version of the Higher became the only option at that level – after a year of overlapping with the old Higher – and the A-C pass rate was 77.2 per cent. Since then it has decreased to 77 per cent in 2017, and to 76.8 per cent in the 2018 qualifications data released today.
The general secretary of Scotland's biggest teaching union has said there is an "urgent" review to examine the impact of longer exams at National 5, which were introduced in 2017-18 after unit assessments were scrapped.
Larry Flanagan welcomed the extension of grade D at National 5, which "has helped reduce the 'belt and braces' approach of pupils being entered for both National 5 and National 4".
But he added: "Further investigation is required to assess the impact of the extended exam at National 5, a concern raised by EIS members. This is urgent as this session will see the removal of units at Higher level, also.”
Although today's data showed a drop in A-C attainment of 2.1 percentage points, Dr Brown said feedback to the SQA suggested that longer exams were not a factor.
The education secretary announced in 2016 that unit assessments would be removed, in response to teaching union concerns about the workload they created, but fears have been raised that this has led to longer and new exams.
Scotland's pupiils 'continue to perform well'
Mr Flanagan added: "Scotland’s teachers have continued to go the extra mile to provide support and encouragement to their pupils, whilst dealing with ongoing concerns of excessive workload and deteriorating salary values."
“Overall, however, this year's results show that both Scotland’s pupils and educational establishments continue to perform well, despite the many challenges affecting education and teachers today.”
The Scottish Conservatives said that "SNP complacency on education has been exposed after a fall in exam pass rates across several key areas".
They pointed to “major issues” at National 4 and 5. Education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: "There’s no escaping the fact that, for a government that claims its priority is education, these are disappointing statistics."
The government preferred to focus on the number of Higher passes remaining almost unchanged over the past year, despite a fall of more than 2.4 per cent in the S5-6 school roll. It also pointed to the growing numbers taking Advanced Highers.
Mr Swinney said: “It is important to remember that we will always see slight variations in pass rates and the results show that we have a robust, credible assessment system in place."
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: "The real concern is that these falls in attainment are now clear trends over a number of years. It would appear that years of cuts to school budgets and teacher numbers, along with the narrowing of the curriculum and reduced course choice, are now having an impact on exam results."
The Greens' education spokesman, Ross Greer, said that teachers are "experiencing a workload and morale crisis and the government is more interested in unwanted and unhelpful governance reforms than solving these problems by giving staff and pupils the resources they need".