The controversial National 4 inflicts an “utter injustice” on tens of thousands of young people, critics have claimed, after figures suggested far lower take-up than for previous qualifications.
Concerns have grown that N4 is viewed by both pupils and employers as a “Mickey Mouse” qualification because it does not include an external exam.
And employers, I think, just think that it’s some sort of Mickey Mouse certificate that just gets given to [pupils], almost like an attendance award, rather than an achievement showing the skills they’ve got
The N4 debate was reignited after a number of submissions to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, including one from a teacher who said that pupils were “demotivated” because their work was not “‘important enough’ to send away for marking”.
An analysis by education academic Lindsay Paterson also showed that there were only 115,000 awards at N4 in 2016, according to provisional figures. This was down 36 per cent from a combined 179,000 for N4’s predecessor qualifications, Standard Grade general and Intermediate 1, in 2012.
The number of awards at N4 had also fallen from 122,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, awards at the higher-level National 5 were holding up relatively well, Professor Paterson said.
He argued that the contrasting figures could be attributed to N4’s lack of external assessment, which was giving it “lower status in the eyes of pupils, parents and teachers”.
Such evidence sparked anger in Parliament from one-time Labour leader Johann Lamont (pictured, left), a former teacher, who condemned the “utter injustice towards a whole range of young people who no longer have external certification”. N4 contrasted unfavourably with the now-defunct Standard Grade qualification, Ms Lamont said, which had a philosophy of “certification for all” and included external exams at all levels.
N4 was also the subject of debate during the recent School Leaders Scotland (SLS) conference, when SQA chief executive Janet Brown was asked if an external exam might be introduced to the qualification.
She said: “We need to talk about what National 4 is for, what we want it to do, why has it worked in some places, why is it not working, what’s the issue on the parity of esteem between a National 4 and a National 5?”
But Dr Brown added that she didn’t think it was “the right thing for people” to “leap into an external exam”.
Yet school leaders appear split: while some agree that N4 undermines the egalitarian tradition of Scottish education, others say that internal assessment sits well with the college courses that many N4 candidates will undertake later.
Peter Reid, of West Lothian’s Broxburn Academy, said that pupils in his school who predominantly sat N4s “don’t feel valued, they don’t feel the parity of esteem”.
He added: “And employers, I think, just think that it’s some sort of Mickey Mouse certificate that just gets given to [pupils], almost like an attendance award, rather than an achievement showing the skills they’ve got.”
But Lesley Carroll, headteacher at Falkirk’s Graeme High School, said: “I have a very different feedback from our young people. They highly value the National 4 qualification; nobody is talking about, ‘Please Miss, can we do an exam?’ They see the articulation with the work they then move on to in colleges – the vast majority of which for those young people with N4s is internally assessed.”
Ms Carroll added: “I think it would be a real retrograde step if we moved back to looking for an end-of-year examination – it would be yet another hurdle for these young people to jump over.”
The debate comes after TESS last week revealed proposals that would make it easier for students to pass National 5 and Highers, by extending the range of the D grade and adding an E grade (“Plan for new E grade to cut number of exam fails”, Insight).
This would counteract the effect of removing unit assessments and allow weaker students to have work recognised, supporters argued.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said that its assessment and national qualifications group was considering a range of issues linked to enhancing the status of National 4.
She added: “It is important not to focus solely on the possibility of an external assessment as there are other factors to consider. Internal assessment is widely used in a range of qualifications, including HNCs, that are respected by employers, further and higher education institutions.”