An external exam at National 4 could be introduced to improve the credibility of the much-maligned qualification, Scotland’s exam chief has revealed.
Janet Brown, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), told TESS that the body was “very happy to redesign the qualification if necessary” and an external exam was “absolutely” something it would consider if the credibility of N4 remained “challenging”.
Dr Brown made her comments in the wake of the publication of this year’s exam results, which showed entries for N4 had plummeted from 130,876 last year to 122,961 this year (see statistics, opposite).
The internally assessed N4 qualification was introduced, Dr Brown said, to allow pupils to demonstrate their knowledge in a context that was “less stressful than in an examination environment”. However, there had been “very strong feedback” that N4 was “not credible because it doesn’t have an external exam”, she admitted.
When N4 was introduced, heads accused the Scottish government of creating a two-tier system where some pupils sat exams and others did not. And last week TESS reported on SQA research, which found that support for an external exam in N4 was “fairly widespread” among teachers. The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association has previously called on the government to introduce an exam at N4 “to improve the value of the qualification”.
However, some have questioned whether the drop in entries at N4 this year should be attributed to the qualification’s credibility.
Last year schools were guilty of over-presenting pupils at N4 because they were being “mega-cautious”, said Maureen McKenna, Glasgow’s education director and president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. She called for a debate on internal versus external assessment, arguing it was “custom and practice” that made schools value external assessment more.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, also thought that the drop could be attributed to overpresentation last year. He hit out at the SQA, saying that the new qualifications had been “poorly delivered”. An externally assessed exam at N4 would leave pupils who sat N5 and failed it without a safety net, he argued.
Mr Flanagan went on to question whether the all–new exam system, introduced in full for the first time in 2015-16, had improved the qualifications on offer to Scottish pupils.
Dr Brown said: “What we do need to do, and what we’ve said actually at the assessment and national qualifications group, is that we should be looking at N4 and looking at what has worked, what has not worked, and what Scotland wants from the qualification.
“Therefore, SQA is very happy to redesign the qualification if necessary, but I think it needs to be done based on real thought and real understanding of what is the goal.”
Mr Flanagan said: “One thing the SQA was charged with doing was retaining the best aspects of Standard grade and one of those was that kids sat Credit and General or General and Foundation, so they had the chance to maximise their results, at the same time as ensuring they had a fall-back. If N4, N5 and Higher become discrete exams, you remove that fall-back. But that might be where we end up.”
He added: “If you look at what has changed from the old system, we have changed the names of the exams and have taken out the safety net feature. You might wonder whether or not that is progress.”
The new Nationals were delivered in Scotland for the first time in 2014. They replaced Access, Intermediate and Standard grade qualifications, with N1 to N4 internally assessed by teachers and N5 ending with an externally marked exam. The new exams were introduced to try to ensure that assessment at this level fitted in with Curriculum for Excellence.
This is the first year that schools and colleges have offered the full range of new national qualifications. The old Higher, which ran in tandem with the new Higher last year, has been phased out and candidates sat the new Advanced Higher for the first time.
As well as the drop in entries at N4, the results show a fall in candidates achieving an A-C pass for the new Higher: 77.2 per cent of candidates who sat the new Higher passed the qualification this year, compared with 79.2 per cent last year.
The proportion of candidates achieving an A-C for the new English Higher is also down on last year, falling from 80.6 per cent to 78.8 per cent. Pupils achieving a C or better for the new maths Higher rose from 70.8 per cent to 73.5 per cent this year but entries – including the new and old Higher last year – dropped by more than 2,000.
The headteacher’s view
At the school’s senior level, the new curriculum has led to major workload concerns. The need to analyse changes in assessment materials during the year hasn’t helped, neither has putting what is sometimes unclear policy into practice.
Not all subjects appeared to have the same clarity and support, and verification processes have caused stress even for experienced teachers. The jury’s still out on whether new assessment processes at senior phase will reduce bureaucracy and workload.
Staff do tend to feel the new qualifications are more challenging, particularly at National 5. Designing courses for students is now more demanding of staffing resources, and we have to be more flexible about ensuring good pathways from S4-6.
Our school, like many, is now revising its curriculum content and teaching approaches in light of senior phase exam content, and there is some danger that this could narrow approaches.
The challenge now at this early stage is to develop learners who apply higher-order thinking skills and have more than surface knowledge.
Craig Biddick is headteacher at Tobermory High School