A guide to the new National 4 and 5 qualifications

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland education correspondent

Image source, PA
Image caption,
National 4 and 5 qualifications are replacing Standard Grades this year

BBC Scotland Education Correspondent Jamie McIvor answers some of the most common questions about the new National 4 and 5 qualifications.

What are they?

In broad terms, the new National 4 and 5 qualifications are this year taking the place of Standard Grades as part of a wider shake up of the structure of qualifications.

What are the biggest changes?

The big change is that the courses which lead directly to the N5 qualifications only last one year - S Grade courses were 2 years long. Students begin studying for the qualifications at the beginning of fourth year although they will often lead on directly from the courses they were studying beforehand..

The National 5 is the more academically advanced of the qualifications, the equivalent of a credit pass in a Standard Grade or a good pass in an old O Grade.

The National 4 qualification is the equivalent of a general in a Standard Grade - or, to go back further, it is designed for students who may have had a limited chance of success in an O Grade. The N4 does not involve formal exams at the end of the course - these courses rely on continuous assessment. Only N5 students have formal exams over the next few weeks.

S4, 5 and 6 are described as the "senior phase" at school. The thinking nowadays is that what matters is how many qualifications a youngster has when they leave school - not what they have at the end of a particular year or how long they personally take to achieve them. Some students will do more N4s and 5s in S5 and 6.

If the courses only last a year, does that make them easier?

Different perhaps, but not easier as such.

Third year is now described as a "broad general education", which is what S1 and S2 might always have been called. A student taking a National 5 in a subject is doing a qualification with so called "equivalence" to a Credit in a Standard Grade.

But some have claimed the new qualifications are simply too easy in the first place - for instance, drawing attention to multiple choice questions in some exams. Multiple choice tests have been part of some "O" Grade and Standard Grade exams for decades. While, of course, a student may sometimes guess an answer, a student would need to show an understanding of the subject to actually work out which option was correct and get a good mark in the paper overall.

More broadly, the new exams do place a greater emphasis on so-called deeper learning - giving a candidate the chance to show how much they understand a subject rather than simply use facts, figures and formulae. There is less emphasis on requiring candidates to commit facts or figures to memory and more on analysing and applying what they have learned on their courses.

For instance a mathematical formula may be used to solve a practical problem or a history student may use their knowledge to analyse a document presented to them.

This fits in with wider changes to education in recent years. The thinking is that applying knowledge is ultimately more helpful in providing students with the skills necessary to take their learning to the next level - whether for their own interest, further study or into employment.

Has there been dumbing down?

This is perhaps the most subjective and contentious point. Dumbing down to one person is making a subject more relevant or engaging to another.

Inevitably some traditionalists may regret the long-term move away from facts, figures and formulae for their own sake and contrast the direction of travel in Scotland with the return to more traditional methods being advocated south of the border. This is an issue where it is hard to find consensus although the changes in Scotland enjoy broad support amongst education professionals here.

However some of the specific claims being made about dumbing down are easier for supporters to counter. When, for instance, claims are made concerning some National 4 level work, it might be pointed out that youngsters at the same stage 30 years ago would probably have been taking non certificate courses.

I did eight O Grades - why is my child only doing six National 5s?

It was commonplace for academic children to study for 8 O Grades and recently most children studied for 7 or 8 Standard Grades. Different schools and local authorities have taken different decisions about how many National 5s to routinely let children study for. These decisions would normally have been taken after consultations with parents.

The thinking is that by studying for 6 National 5s, rather than 7 or 8, time is freed up for the student to do things like work experience or community work - the kind of things which Curriculum for Excellence encourages. The fact a youngster might end up with fewer qualifications in S4 would be partly balanced out by the fact their general education continued into S3. It would also be possible for them to study for more National 5s in S5.

Another part of the thinking is that the important thing is the number of qualifications a youngster has when they leave school - not how old they were when they got them. It's also worth mentioning that qualifications can, in effect, become redundant when a student goes on to study a subject at a more advanced level. For many, O Grades and Standard Grades were just stopping off points on their way to a Higher. Some of the most academically able youngsters have not been studying for National 5s in all subjects this year but have spent S4 working towards the Highers they will sit next year.

There seems to be no consistency in the number of National 5s that students across Scotland are getting the chance to study. Some are doing 5, some 6, some 7. Won't children be losing out if they don't have the chance to do 7?

One concern some parents have raised is that children who attend schools which give them the chance to study more National 5s in S4 will be at an unfair advantage - especially when it comes to university. However university entry is determined by Higher results and interviews with the candidates. The number of National 5s a candidate sat would not be a factor in deciding whether to offer an applicant a place.

However there is a potential issue for school-leavers and those who don't gain qualifications beyond N5. Employers may be unaware that youngsters at different schools may have been put forward for a different number of qualifications so employers will need to be aware that the number of N5s a candidate has achieved by a particular age cannot automatically be used as a judge of their ability.

Aren't teachers' unions worried about the changes?

The EIS and the SSTA both support the changes themselves. Their concerns are about practical aspects of their implementation: for instance stress, workload and help and support for teachers. This has been a genuinely challenging year for some teachers - they have had to rewrite courses and lesson plans which may have changed little for many years.

There were also questions over, for instance, the number of sample papers which were available to give candidates a good idea of what to expect. Only one was produced and while they give a good indication of the format of exams, inevitably it's harder for students to gauge the likely range of questions than it was for students in previous years who scoured several past papers. However the SQA has also been highlighting questions in old exam papers which may still be appropriate.

The unions insist their members are working flat out to help ensure the qualifications a success.

So why are some parents so worried?

If a child's exams go badly wrong, it could of course have lasting consequences and inevitably some parents worry their children are being used as guinea pigs. Schools and unions have been trying to offer reassurance.

Privately some education professionals concede that the changes - and the reasoning behind them - were not always well enough explained at an early enough stage.

However there is no doubt that the fact some teachers have concerns and anxieties will also leave some parents worried.

There are also teachers who would express a concern that some parts of the media may have stoked parents' anxieties with articles they dismiss as scare stories.

Ultimately it will be hard to ease anxieties until the exams and results are successfully out of the way.

What's happening to Highers?

Students doing the National 5s now should normally go on to study for new look Highers in the next academic year. The changes are less radical but there have been calls to delay them until the new N5s settle in.

This won't happen but the government says they can be delayed when it is in the interests of the students to do so. There is little evidence of this happening to any great extent in major subjects so far. But unions say councils should not force the new Highers on schools or departments which are not ready for them.

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