Assessment - Why National students remain spoiled for choice

31st January 2014 at 00:00
Fears of narrowed curriculum appear to be unfounded

Students doing the new National qualifications are taking almost the same number of subjects as under the old regime, according to new figures - allaying fears that young people might end up with a narrower curriculum.

Schools are entering students for an average of 6.8 National courses this year, TESS has found, slightly down on the 7.3 subjects they took under Standard grades and Intermediates in 2012-13.

That is higher than widely anticipated at the start of the school year, when it was reported that there would typically only be enough teaching hours for six subjects with Nationals being squeezed into one year.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority data shows that the uptake of most subjects is at least on a par with previous years, despite fears that some would be edged out.

Gill Stewart, SQA's director of qualifications development, said that the figures reflected the situation on 9 January and that "lots of changes" were likely before final statistics were gathered in March.

She said that this year was "a different ball game" from the previous system, with "greater flexibility" in S4-S6 meaning that a snapshot of one school year was no longer so telling. "It's like trying to compare apples and pears," she added.

Dr Stewart said that the "wider achievement awards" introduced last year, such as Skills for Work, were not factored into the new data; nor were the instances in which Nationals courses were being taken over two years.

"Sometimes, looking at the average number of subjects doesn't tell you the whole story," she said.

In one school, for example, students were taking five subjects in one year but English over two, so 2013-14 SQA data showed its students being submitted for only five subjects.

According to the SQA's figures, only 30 schools at this stage appear to have entered students for just five subjects - and some are submitting students for eight. "We know that lots of local authorities and individual schools are taking different approaches," Dr Stewart said.

Total entries for National 4 come to about 100,000, of which 97,000 are in S4. The National 5 total is about 250,000, of which 230,000 are in S4.

Take-up of English, maths, social subjects and expressive arts is similar to that under the old qualifications, and entries for the sciences are slightly up.

Take-up of modern languages shows a slight dip. However, Dr Stewart said that young people were "at least ... studying languages until the end of S3 rather than S2". She also expected the government's "1+2" languages strategy to have an impact over the medium-to-long term.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said the SQA data tallied with feedback from parents, although there was "substantial variation" around the country. She added that she knew of a small number of examples where schools were allowing able students to bypass Nationals and go straight to Higher.

Parents' concerns varied, Ms Prior said. "In some cases, (they) feel the range is not sufficient and that this will limit their child's options at Higher. But some parents are telling us that the level of assessment at National level is extreme and causing their children a great deal of stress."

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said: "I think there's an optimum number of subjects - I wouldn't like to see it going below six.

"I'd like to think we would stick to the broad-base approach we have in Scotland. If not, there's a danger of restricting people's potential when it comes to further education, higher education and career development."

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