Students’ failure to progress revealed

Calls for reform of Scotland’s qualifications as figures show that many students fail National 5 after passing National 4

Scottish teachers have warned that, in many cases, National 4 studies fail to properly prepare students to progress to National 5

Teachers and unions have hit out at the lack of progression between Scotland’s new qualifications as new figures show that few pupils who gain a National 4 manage to progress on to the more challenging National 5.

The Ferret, an investigative journalism website, has analysed four years of data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). It has revealed that in maths, sciences and social science a majority of pupils progressing from National 4 do not successfully complete the next level of study, National 5.

Pass rates are as low as 34 per cent for geography students, while six out of 10 maths students fail to achieve National 5.


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In 2018, 9,378 N5 maths students had been awarded an N4 the previous year, but 60 per cent of them failed the final exam at N5.

Similar failure rates are found in chemistry (59 per cent), biology (60 per cent), physics (63 per cent), history (57 per cent), geography (66 per cent), modern studies (64 per cent) and computing (62 per cent).

A former head of maths said that the N4 course did not effectively prepare students to progress to study at N5 level.

Problems with National 4?

He told The Ferret: “The N4 maths course can be passed with superficial levels of understanding compared to previous qualifications, and the method of assessment means that the pupil doesn’t need to even learn the course – just the test.”

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, urged reform of the N4 qualifications to ensure that they provide a pathway for students capable of moving on to N5 courses.

“One of the big problems with N4 is that in many subjects the content does not match up with what is covered at N5, making it incredibly difficult for teachers to support students moving from N4 to N5,” he said.

“In many cases those teachers are also having to cover several different qualifications in one class, making things even worse.” 

National 4 qualifications were introduced in 2014 and replaced some Standard Grade and Intermediate 1 qualifications during the shift to Scotland’s new teaching strategy, Curriculum for Excellence.

The courses have no final external exam, with all assessment being carried out internally by class teachers. Rather than achieving a particular grade, successful students are simply awarded a "Pass".

The SQA stressed that N4 was designed to provide a clear progression pathway from the third curriculum level either into N5 or into college or training and other qualifications. These included national certificates, national progression awards, modern apprenticeships and foundation apprenticeships.

“SQA continues to work in partnership with schools, colleges and employers to develop and refine our extensive catalogue of qualifications that enhance choice and facilitate meaningful progression for all learners. This includes reviewing alignment of course content between National 4 and National 5 in a small number of courses,” said an SQA spokesperson.

“The design of N4 qualifications is in line with that agreed by the Curriculum for Excellence Management Board and provides candidates with the opportunity to achieve certification in a wide range of subjects.”

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