Can a new model reinvigorate N4’s flagging fortunes?

16th March 2018 at 00:00
Plans to reboot the qualification would give students the option of undertaking an external assessment

The Scottish government has been considering rebooting the much-maligned National 4 qualification by giving pupils the option of undertaking an external assessment that could lead to a “distinction” or a “merit”, as opposed to just a pass or fail.

Tes Scotland can also reveal the government has considered conducting a review of N4 courses and unit assessments “to ensure stronger progression from National 4 to National 5 and to facilitate bi-level teaching”.

Papers seen exclusively by Tes Scotland contain detailed proposals for enhancing “the credibility of the National 4 qualification among learners, the teaching profession, parents, and employers”.

The N4 qualification – which is internally assessed by teachers – was introduced in 2013-14 but has failed to take off, with many questioning its worth. Entries for N4 fell by 11.3 per cent between 2015 and 2017.


The new model for N4 that is on the table is revealed in papers that went before the new Curriculum and Assessment Board (CAB) at its inaugural meeting in December. The CAB, which advises the government, is the new forum for “frank and open discussion” about Scottish education.

Under the plans, N4 would retain the current unit-based structure, with pupils undertaking three internally assessed units.

However, learners would have the option of replacing the internally set and marked “added-value unit” at the end of the course with an alternative course assessment.

The assessment would be sat in schools but would be set by and marked by exam body, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

Pupils attaining more than 50 per cent would pass the qualification, while those attaining 70 per cent or more would receive a pass with “distinction” or ”merit”, say the papers.

‘Ill-considered decisions’

Mike Corbett, an English teacher and national executive member of the NASUWT Scotland teaching union, is urging the government to push ahead with the proposed changes after the CAB decided to consult more widely on the plan before taking action.

Corbett says that the N4 proposals have been agreed by the teacher associations, Scottish government, Education Scotland and the SQA – and if they are rejected by the CAB, “then it is a body which is not supporting teachers and its membership needs to be reformed”.

However, secondary headteachers are urging caution and warning against “illconsidered decisions”.

Corbett says: “We have been talking about changes to N4 almost since N4 began and here we are four years on and there is still no change. Until changes are made parents will continue to put pressure on schools for pupils to be presented at N5 when they are not ready for it, because they have no trust in N4.”

Research carried out by the SQA last year found that almost three-quarters of Scottish secondary schools feel under pressure from parents to present pupils for qualifications they are unsuited for.

Issues and concerns

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of secondary headteachers organisation School Leaders Scotland, says: “We are not suggesting that N4 is fit for purpose, but quick decisions tend to be ill-considered decisions.

“There are issues but we would prefer to take time in coming to a decision about the best way forward.”

A Scottish government spokeswoman says: “The Curriculum and Assessment Board is reviewing National 4 to address a range of concerns. No decisions have been made and, given the consideration of these issues is at an early stage, no consensus currently exists around any proposals.”


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