Calls to reform key school qualifications as pupils fail to progress

The Scottish Government is facing fresh calls for reform of key qualifications in secondary schools and colleges after analysis of official data highlighted problems with major subjects.

The Ferret has analysed four years of data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). We can reveal that in maths, sciences and social science a majority of pupils progressing from National 4 do not successfully complete the next level of study, National 5.

Pass rates are as low as 34 per cent for geography students, while six out of 10 maths students fail to achieve National 5.

One teaching union said that “significant changes” are needed to National 4 courses and suggested that course content and assessment methods need to be reviewed. Another accused the Scottish Government of allowing the current situation to “drift”.

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National 4 (N4) qualifications were introduced in 2014 and replaced some Standard Grade and Intermediate 1 qualifications during the shift to Scotland’s new teaching strategy, Curriculum for Excellence.

The courses have no final external exam, with all assessment being carried out internally by class teachers. Rather than achieving a particular grade successful students are simply awarded a ‘Pass’.

Although for some students N4 acts as an access route to further education, training or employment, it is also meant to provide a pathway towards National 5 (N5) in secondary school. SQA documents list N4 as one of the potential entry qualifications for N5 courses.

The SQA produces annual progression tables detailing success rates for pupils making the step up from one level of qualification to the next. In 2018 9,378 N5 maths students had been awarded an N4 the previous year, but 60 per cent of them failed the final exam at N5.

Similar failure rates are found in chemistry (59 per cent), biology (60 per cent), physics (63 per cent), history (57 per cent), geography (66 per cent), modern studies (64 per cent) and computing (62 per cent).


The data shows that in most of these subjects the failure rate has either remained broadly stable or got worse since 2015, when comparative information became available.

In biology, physics, computing, history, geography and modern studies the pass rate for students moving from N4 to N5 has fallen since 2015. Both maths and chemistry have registered small increases.

Even in English, where most students going from N4 to N5 are successful, the pass rate has fallen from 74 per cent in 2015 to 63 per cent in 2018. Pass rates for such students in applications of maths – previously known as lifeskills maths – have increased by nearly twenty percentage points, but are still low at 38 per cent.

Chris McGrane, a former head of maths in a Glasgow secondary school now working for a private training and consultancy company, argued that the N4 course does not effectively prepare students to progress to study at N5 level.

“The N4 maths course can be passed with superficial levels of understanding compared to previous qualifications, and the method of assessment means that the pupil doesn’t need to even learn the course – just the test,” he said.

“The N4 course does not value the key skills for progression to further study, such as algebra, and as the subject is hierarchical in nature these gaps in knowledge cause significant issues with later learning. It is also based on expectations which are too low, and the lack of grading in the final assessment means there is no way to distinguish between strong pupils and those who have struggled.”

McGrane added that, if changes to N4 courses were not forthcoming, then schools should consider bypassing it entirely by adopting alternative courses to prepare young people for the demands of N5.

N4 qualifications have struggled since being introduced, with plummeting entry rates and questions around their perceived value amongst pupils, teachers, parents and employers.

SQA chief executive, Dr Janet Brown, was forced to defend the qualifications during a recent appearance before the Scottish Parliament’s education and skills committee, admitting that they faced a “huge challenge with regard to credibility.”

General secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, Seamus Searson, urged reform of the N4 qualifications to ensure they provide a pathway for students capable of moving on to N5 courses.

“One of the big problems with N4 is that in many subjects the content does not match up with what is covered at N5, making it incredibly difficult for teachers to support students moving from N4 to N5,” he said.

“In many cases those teachers are also having to cover several different qualifications in one class, making things even worse. There needs to be some significant changes to ensure that capable students have the best chance of progression from N4 to N5.”

Searson suggested reforming the content of N4 to be more closely aligned to N5. “An alternative option might be to focus on identifying the students who could make that step up and offering them a two-year N5 specifically design for that cohort,” he added.

“It will also be important to ensure that assessments are appropriate for each subject which, according to our members, is not always the case.”


Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the teachers’ union, Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), highlighted a lack of action by the Scottish Government to address problems with the qualification.

“N4 currently fulfils two functions: as a freestanding award which is designed to articulate with alternative pathways for students, and as a prior attainment level for students wishing to progress to N5,” he said.

“It works well in the first instance and should be valued for the credit it gives pupils. The second aspect is more challenging as a threshold pass at N4 isn’t necessarily a good indication of successful progression to N5, which is why some teachers would prefer to see at least two levels of N4 pass, with the higher level being the required pass for N5 entry.”

Flanagan pointed out that the course content in some subjects could be better aligned with N5 awards. “The situation has been allowed to drift by Scottish Government but the EIS has been pressing for decisions to be made to improve the current unsatisfactory hybrid scenario which has developed,” he added.

The Ferret reported in May on SQA data showing that Scotland’s schools were still suffering wide gender gaps. Boys still choose more technical subjects, while girls avoid them.

Revealed: the gender gaps in Scotland’s schools

The SQA stressed that N4 was designed to provide a clear progression pathway from the third curriculum level either into N5 or into college or training and other qualifications. These included national certificates, national progression awards, modern apprenticeships and foundation apprenticeships.

“SQA continues to work in partnership with schools, colleges and employers to develop and refine our extensive catalogue of qualifications that enhance choice and facilitate meaningful progression for all learners. This includes reviewing alignment of course content between National 4 and National 5 in a small number of courses,” said an SQA spokesperson.

“The design of N4 qualifications is in line with that agreed by the Curriculum for Excellence Management Board and provides candidates with the opportunity to achieve certification in a wide range of subjects.”

The spokesperson added: “The learning and pathways within Curriculum for Excellence are designed to be centred around the individual learner. Schools should discuss these options with parents and young people to ensure the most appropriate pathway for each learner.”

The Scottish Government emphasised that it was vital that young people were able to obtain the qualifications and awards that fully reflect their achievements. “National 4 is a key part of the offer and is not intended to be seen simply as a stepping stone to National 5,” said a government spokesperson.

“It is also a gateway to vocational learning, and a different range of qualifications, that is better for some learners.”

The spokesperson added: “Teachers and schools are best placed to decide which is the most appropriate path for a young person. For some this should be towards a National 5 ‐ and the courses were designed to enable this to happen where appropriate – whereas for others it should not.

“The senior phase is designed as a three‐year experience in order to offer greater personalisation and choice for young people. This allows for a range of qualifications to be offered over a variable timeframe in response to young people’s needs and prior achievements.

“We are currently working with our partners to identify ways to support and enhance the understanding of National 4 as part of the broader senior phase.”

This story was co-published with the Sunday National on Sunday 16 June.

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