Scotland’s exam body has conceded that multi-course teaching – where students studying for different qualifications are taught in the same class – could lead to some being taught about a topic such the Second World War for National 5, and then again for Higher.
Multi-qualification teaching has already been widely criticised by teachers, who say it is bad for students because they cannot give them the support they need, and also bad for staff because it creates intolerable workload.
Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee last year, EIS union general secretary Larry Flanagan said one of the biggest complaints from Scottish teachers was “the explosion in multi-level classes”.
The education secretary’s take: No proof of ‘explosion’ in multi-level classes
Mr Flanagan said that the growth in multi-level classes was “simply a pragmatic response to the limited resources that schools have to run the courses”.
Now SNP MSP Alasdair Allan, who sits on the Education and Skills Committee, has raised concerns that the practice is leading to pupils being forced to study the same material two years running.
Dr Allan said the committee had been told that where a teacher had N5 and Higher pupils in the same class, there was “a pressure or temptation” to teach the same content when they were studying N5, and then again at Higher level.
Are students studying same topics for N5 and Higher?
In history, he suggested, that might mean teaching the Second World War to the class and then teaching it again when the N5 pupils moved up to Higher; in English, the teacher might teach the same text two years running.
He asked the Scottish Qualifications Authority officials who were giving evidence to the committee this morning if students had the “right not to be taught the same stuff all over again”.
In response, the SQA said that – although it would advise against it – what the committee had heard from teachers was “theoretically” possible.
Dr Allan said: “If I could just come back to the points being made earlier on about multi-level teaching, my question was really about specifically classes where there are National 5 and Higher in the same class.
“We had an engagement event some months back where teachers were anecdotally, I accept, talking about some of the pressures they felt that situation created."
He added: "The situation they were describing was, for instance, if a history teacher has a group of National 5 students and a group of Higher students in the same classroom, they felt that the pressure or the temptation existed to teach both classes – let’s say World War II – one to National 5 standard and one to Higher standard.
"Then the following year the National 5 students who went on to Higher would sit all the same stuff all over again about World War II, but answer a question in a different exam. I think English teachers made the same point.
"My question is, are those criticisms fair, does the exam system create that temptation or pressure to teach kids the same stuff all over again, twice?”
In response, SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said: “We produce materials in relation to ensuring there is clarity on course content and clarity on the standards that need to be met. There is, for some subjects, flexibility about the learning that is undertaken as part of those subjects. A big difference between National 5 and Higher would be around the complexity of learning.”
Speaking about English qualifications, Robert Quinn, the SQA’s head of English, languages and business, added: “Theoretically, the examination allows you to use the same text for National 5 and for Higher. We would never recommend that and our requirements would be that that’s not the case – there are separate text used and you avoid that scenario – but, theoretically, it is possible.
"But in our arrangements, our support notes, in our work with teachers understanding standards, we would take the opposite view.”