Scotland’s new Nationals are a key plank in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), but with only months before the first pupils sit them, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Scottish government have at last responded to some of the concerns from unions.
Last Friday (February 21), the SQA announced changes to the verification system, an issue that has vexed secondaries for months, and at the same time the government announced a £5 million support package to help local authorities deliver the new exams.
Together, the measures have come as welcome news to teachers across Scotland after concerted campaigning. The national parent forum also responded positively to the prospect of more time and resources for pupils in the run-up to the exams.
National 3s, 4s and 5s, which replace Standard Grades, are among the flagship qualifications to be introduced over the next few years.
Corresponding to foundation, general and credit levels at Standard, they put more emphasis on coursework and assessment. In fact, National 3s and 4s do not involve formal exams at all.
Taken over just one year in S4, instead of two years (S3 and S4) as Standards were, Nationals are meant to better reflect “deeper learning”: pupils’ ability to interpret and apply what they have absorbed; make connections across subjects; and display a wider range of skills.
However, just before SecEd went to press this week, Scotland’s main teaching unions won major changes in how the SQA endorses schools’ internal assessment procedures, or verification.
Under the mechanism, the SQA samples schools and colleges from across the country to ensure that their assessments are in line with national standards.
However, teachers argue that certain aspects of verification have been imposing an onerous and sometimes confusing extra burden on teachers at a time when they want to channel their energies into helping pupils handle the new qualifications.
Teachers wanted the SQA to make the next stage (Stage 3) of assessment verification optional rather than mandatory, at least during this first year of the new exams, in order to ease bureaucratic pressures. This month, both the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) held talks with the qualifications authority to this end.
Now the SQA has announced it is modifying the approach to quality assurance of the Nationals, with immediate effect.
In practical terms this means that there will be a change to the focus of the third round of verification for this year, but also that from next year each round will focus on a different aspect of quality assurance.
Dr Janet Brown, chief executive of SQA, said: “The decision was based on the sound intelligence from the verification to date and intelligence from schools. It will allow schools and colleges to concentrate on key aspects of national standards, while giving teachers time to focus on coursework and exam preparation.”
The third round, due to start in April, will now focus on verifying the Added Value Unit assessment and the internally assessed components of course assessment, with a greater emphasis on subjects where there has been most change, she said.
For the 2014/15 academic session, the approach to verification would involve supporting and strengthening teachers’ experience in applying standards.
Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the SSTA, said “This is a welcome announcement and although not the complete answer to the problems our members have identified, it at least goes some of the way towards meaningful progress.
“The review to the verification arrangements particularly for this year should have a positive impact on the concerns of our members. The SSTA does recognise that the SQA has a fundamental responsibility to ensure standards are appropriate but we feel more flexibility would still help.”
Earlier, he told SecEd teachers had been calling for “a degree of latitude” from the exams body to deal with an “exceptional” situation that had prompted an unusually high response from its members.
“We have had contrary guidance emanating from the SQA and quite a bit of confusion,” he said. “Our surveys have been pretty unequivocal: normally about 20 per cent of members respond but on this issue it has been over 50 per cent.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said: “The EIS believes that this new support package is a positive development that will be very welcome in our secondary schools.
“Teachers are continuing to work extremely hard to assimilate new assessment requirements and to ensure that pupils are fully prepared for the first set of National exams in May.
“It is encouraging that the Scottish government and the national education bodies are listening to teachers’ concerns.”
He said the assessment regime so far had gone against the whole ethos of CfE: “The feeling from many teachers is that the entire process has been out of kilter. CfE was supposed to deliver a slimmed down assessment programme but the opposite appears to have been the result.”
The extra cash announced by Dr Alasdair Allan, minister for learning, comprises £4.75 million for authorities to fund more time for schools and teachers to deliver the new qualifications, including the new Highers, and £250,000 for school-level events to improve parents’ understanding of the new qualifications.
Iain Ellis, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, urged schools to engage with their own parent-council forums on their plans for use of this time and funding.
Meanwhile, a fall of about 10 per cent in entries to Nationals this year compared with Standards last year has sparked concern in some quarters about whether some subjects could end up becoming marginalised.
Pupils will take an average of 6.8 Nationals in 2014, down from 7.3 Standards last year, according to the SQA. Language entries have reportedly continued their sharp drop of the last few years and are collectively more than 10 per cent lower than last year, with sciences also down about eight per cent. English and maths have kept steady.
The Scottish government, Education Scotland and the SQA all counter that not only will the new exams mean broader, deeper learning, but also that some pupils could end up taking more Highers or even bypassing Nationals completely in coming years. Others could take more Nationals after S4, alongside Highers.
However, Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said there was anxiety that languages, music, art, drama and other subjects were at risk of being squeezed.
“We’ve had no official evidence yet but plenty of anecdotal material from teachers and parents. Certainly we’ve been concerned about languages for a long time. The natural response to exam changes is: what do they (pupils) need to get in to university or further education? And this tends to favour sciences, maths, English, while other arts subjects tend to be squeezed.
“The SQA would take the view that this is a matter for schools and local authorities, but if we start to lose the capacity to teach these in schools then it affects what’s on offer at university and vice-versa.”
She cited the exams body’s decision to scrap school exams in Russian from next year.
“Hopefully there will be some settling over the next few years after the Nationals have bedded in,” she added.
Mr McKenzie said his members had expressed concerns over history, geography and modern studies, though he agreed it was “almost a theoretical rather than evidence-based fear” at present.
In the meantime, teachers, pupils and parents can at least be thankful for some answers to the verification question.
Sam Phipps is a freelance education journalist.