‘They could leave school with nothing’

Shadow education secretary calls for National qualifications review amid plans to remove safety net for ‘borderline’ pupils

‘They could leave school with nothing’

Fears have been raised over the prospect of thousands of pupils leaving school with no qualifications, following the removal of a “safety net”.

This year, almost 9,000 National 4 awards – around 10 per cent of the total achieved – were given to pupils who failed the more challenging National 5 exam in a process designed to ensure pupils who perform badly on the day of exams receive some recognition for their work.

Next year, however, the Scottish government plans to remove that safety net and the process known as “recognising positive achievement” (RPA) will end.

One secondary headteacher told Tes Scotland the risk was that pupils leaving school at the end of S4 next year could do so with no qualifications.


Background: Scottish government knew assessment changes would disadvantage borderline pupils

Related: The lowdown on National 4

Headteachers' concerns: Removal of RPA could force schools to ‘play it safe’


Meanwhile, shadow education secretary Liz Smith said it was “totally unacceptable” that next year, pupils who failed the N5 exam would “end up with nothing”. She called for a review of the National qualifications introduced for the first time in 2013-14, adding that problems with National 4 persisted and it was still not seen as a valuable award.

However, those in favour of the move mounted a robust defence and questioned why pupils were not being presented at the correct level. The general secretary of the EIS teaching union, Larry Flanagan, asked why 9,000 pupils were being entered for N5 if they were not able to pass it.  

The Scottish government, meanwhile, said N4 was “an important qualification in its own right...not a consolation prize for having not achieved an award at National 5”.

But Ms Smith said schools were pushing pupils towards National 5 because “National 4 as it stands is not satisfactory”.

N4 is internally assessed by teachers and there have been accusations that passes are being “handed out like sweeties”. Teachers also complain that because N4 is not graded, there is no way to differentiate between pupils who pass with flying colours and those who scrape through.

Ms Smith, who also sits on the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, said: “The bottom line is we can’t have them leaving school with nothing. That’s just unacceptable. The education committee is very concerned about this and wants to see a review of the whole S4 exam structure.

"It would be well worthwhile to look at what Scotland had in the past, where youngsters, whatever their ability, were coming away with qualifications.”

Last year, the Scottish government extended the D grade in a bid to prepare for the removal of RPA.

The secondary headteacher who spoke to Tes Scotland – and asked not to be named – said this had made a difference but that the removal of RPA remained “a worry”.

“We are getting better at tracking and diagnosing the presentation level but there might be some kids who leave school having not gained the qualifications they could have got,” he said. “It could disadvantage some.

“Now, if we know a kid is leaving, we will not risk the [N5] exam. It will influence our decision making.”

Billy Burke, president of secondary headteachers’ association School Leaders Scotland, said that 8 per cent of S4 N5 entries at his school – Renfrew High – received an N4 via RPA. Next year, schools would have to be more accurate in their tracking, added Mr Burke.

Decisions about “borderline candidates” would be made on a case-by-case basis but it could be that schools now erred on the side of caution, ensuring N4 was in the bag, instead of giving pupils the chance to achieve N5, he said.

There would, he added, also be candidates who failed the N5 exam even though they were capable of passing and next year there would be no safety net for them.

“The design of the system now is that success at N5 means performing well on the day,” said Mr Burke.

The decision to end RPA came about because of the withdrawal of unit assessments at the behest of the teaching unions. These assessments were blamed for creating “a testing treadmill” in schools and piling pressure on both teachers and pupils.

However, if pupils do not sit the units, then it is not possible for them to gain an N4 if they fail the N5 exam.

When it was realised some pupils could leave S4 with no qualifications, the education secretary John Swinney reneged on the decision to scrap unit assessments on “an interim basis only” and “in exceptional circumstances”.

But next year they will be removed completely and RPA will disappear. To compensate, the lowest threshold for a D grade was reduced from 45 per cent to 40 per cent in 2017-18. Schools have also effectively had two years to adjust their presentation approaches.

However, this year’s exam result statistics show that although the number of N4 awards made through RPA is falling, there were still 8,996 N4 awards made to pupils who failed N5 – that’s around 9 per cent of total N4 entries and around 10 per cent of N4 awards attained. Last year, 10,914 N4 awards were made through RPA.

Mr Flanagan said: “RPA was resulting in too many pupils being entered for both N4 units and also N5 assessments, placing a disproportionate assessment burden on those least able to cope with it academically. The key issue is presenting pupils for the appropriate level of award and having flexible curricular pathways – why are 9,000 pupils being entered for N5 if they aren’t able to pass it?“ 

A Scottish government spokeswoman said the total number of N4 awards gained through RPA had “continued to decrease significantly”, which showed that more young people were being put forward for the correct qualification in the first place.

The spokeswoman added: “It is crucial that learners are presented at the correct level of qualification to meet their educational needs and to build their confidence.

“National 4 is a key part of our national qualifications on offer within the senior phase– it is an important qualification in its own right and a credible pathway through the senior phase, not a consolation prize for having not achieved an award at National 5.”

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