Why teachers are up in arms about the new Nationals

6th May 2016 at 00:00
As unions threaten action over the ‘severe workload burden’, we explore the ins and outs of the problem

This year’s exam diet kicked off on Wednesday, just a few days after the EIS teaching union confirmed that it was going to ballot members for industrial action over the new National qualifications. Here we explore why teachers are unhappy and the potential impact on pupils.

What’s the problem with the new National qualifications?

There’s too much assessment, teachers say, and it is generating a “severe workload burden”. Each qualification has a number of unit assessments (usually around three) and an added value unit, which is meant to ensure that pupils can use their skills, knowledge and understanding beyond the classroom. According to the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) a typical S4 pupil (aged 14-15) taking three subjects at National 4 and three at N5 could face as many as 24 assessments or assignments. The majority of these would have to be completed in the four-month period between January and April.

How long have the qualifications had to bed in?

The new National qualifications were introduced in 2013-14, with pupils sitting exams for the first time in May 2014. Teachers had said that they wanted the issues with the qualifications to be resolved before the beginning of the 2016-17 qualification cycle. This won’t happen now, as schools have already started delivering N4 and N5 courses.

Has the government tried to address teachers’ concerns?

In January, Angela Constance, the education secretary, announced the creation of an expert group to advise on improvements to assessment and qualifications. It was chaired by learning minister Alasdair Allan, and was asked to make recommendations on issues such as internal assessment and teacher workload that could be considered by ministers ahead of the 2016-17 school year. The final report was completed on 21 April.

What does the report say?

For now, only members of the Curriculum for Excellence management board know. They received copies but said that there were no plans to distribute the report more widely until after yesterday’s election.

What’s the reaction?

The EIS, which has a representative on the board, said that it was going to ballot its members over industrial action, because while “some positive changes” had been agreed by the group, the report’s recommendations still “fell far short of an acceptable solution to the issue of excessive workload”. The SSTA said that it had asked for clarification on some of the proposed measures for reducing workload and that it was consulting with its own members. Last month, it said that it would hold an indicative ballot of members on the working group report.

How will this impact on pupils sitting exams?

They should be pretty much oblivious to all of this – although those sitting National qualifications will have had to go through the “unrelenting internal assessment” that the teaching unions are objecting to. Earlier this year, the SSTA linked rising rates of self-harm among teenagers to over-assessment in school. Education directors have also expressed concerns about the pressure that pupils are under. However, action by teachers to address the problem will not affect students until the new session when they are back in class.

Could schools be hit by strike action?

Only if things escalate. Currently, the EIS is planning “action short of strike” and to work to contract “with a view to reducing the workload and assessment burden of SQA-related matters”.

Anything else?

All eyes will be on this year’s Higher maths exam, which pupils will sit next Thursday. Last year, the SQA exam board was forced to admit the exam was too difficult and lower the pass mark. And the new Advanced Highers were introduced for the first time this year; it will be interesting to hear teachers’ and pupils’ verdicts on their success.


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