Torrid year ends in top marks for Nationals
Scottish pupils have posted an impressive set of results in the first round of the new National qualifications, despite a torrid year for the schools and teachers tasked with implementing them.
Serious concerns had been expressed by unions about a rising tide of bureaucracy and conflicting advice around the new courses. Some politicians even predicted a repeat of the exams fiasco in 2000, when reforms resulted in many thousands of late or incorrect results.
But this week's marks have been welcomed by teaching unions and parent organisations. They stressed, however, that lessons must be learned from the fraught introduction of the Nationals, and highlighted ongoing concerns about some pupils taking courses that they were unlikely to pass.
The National 5 pass rate was 81.1 per cent (similar to the 81.8 per cent achieved in the equivalent Intermediate 2 qualification in 2013), and for National 4 - which does not involve external exams - it was 93 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Higher pass rate fell slightly from 77.4 to 77.1 per cent, although there were 9,249 more entries this year.
"Pupils, parents and teachers should be extremely proud of this strong set of results," said Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union. He added that it was "gratifying to see the positive attainment rates, particularly in light of the challenging circumstances", referring to the introduction of the qualifications amid budget cuts and reforms to teacher training.
Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said he rarely praised government ministers but that a pivotal moment came when education secretary Michael Russell pressured the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland to offer teachers more support in implementing the Nationals.
"Fair do's to him - he got in about them and was very effective in that regard," said Mr McKenzie, who earlier this year described the training for the Nationals as "a shambles".
His biggest concern, he said, was the introduction of new Highers in 2014-15 and the "patchwork picture" emerging as some pupils pursued the new qualification as others completed the old version.
NASUWT Scotland organiser Jane Peckham said that teachers had consistently reported "a lack of clarity, coordination, resources and support" for the Nationals, but still helped pupils to achieve "yet another outstanding set of results".
Mike Corbett, NASUWT national executive member, said that the National 5 pass rate seemed "encouraging" but he believed a "small but significant" number of pupils had struggled with the qualification. Some teachers had lacked confidence about how to meet expected standards, he said, and some parents had made their children sit the more difficult qualification because National 4 had no external assessment.
Iain Ellis, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said: "This is a different system with different outcomes and I hope everyone will see it as a strong start to the new qualifications rather than try and make unhelpful comparisons [with previous years]."
Such comparisons were "near-impossible", said Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC). The first year of the new qualifications had been "difficult" for young people, she added, but "a huge amount of effort has been made by youngsters and schools to achieve a positive set of results".
The SPTC's priority was for "over-assessment" of pupils to be "killed stone dead" by curricular reform, Ms Prior said. "The SQA, school leaders and teachers need to work together to make sure learning, not assessment, is what we focus on in coming years," she added.
Education directors body ADES said that praise was due to SQA staff as well as teachers, although a clear picture of how smooth the introduction had been would emerge only after local authorities analysed their results.
Entries across all qualifications fell by more than 55,000 to 708,000. An SQA spokesman said these figures were affected by more flexible approaches in S4-6. Many pupils are taking Nationals over two years, so entries will not be recorded until next year. Pupils are also tending to take fewer subjects over a year than under Standard grades, but it will not be entirely clear until next year whether certain subjects have been squeezed out.
"There has clearly been a tremendous amount of work put in by candidates across Scotland and their commitment has been rewarded," said SQA chef executive Janet Brown.