Q&A on Scotland's national qualifications

Standard Grades in Scotland are being replaced by the new National qualifications. But how different will they be? BBC Scotland's education correspondent Jamie McIvor answers some key questions.

What are the new qualifications?

The new National 3, National 4 and National 5 courses have replaced Standard Grades. The National 5 is the more academically advanced - the equivalent of a credit in a Standard Grade or a good pass in an O Grade in the old days. The National 4 is the equivalent of a general in a Standard Grade whereas National 3 compares to foundation level.

Why are the courses lasting one year not two?

The first three years at secondary school are now described as a "broad general education". In other words, third year is now more like first or second year - broadly speaking, most children follow essentially the same timetable. This is one of the changes associated with Curriculum for Excellence.

But by the time a student starts their National 3, National 4 or National 5 courses at the beginning of S4, they should be at a more advanced point than a student starting their Standard Grades in S3.

What other big differences are there?

The new qualifications put a greater emphasis on coursework and ongoing assessment.

Students studying for National 3s and National 4s won't have formal exams next spring. Coursework will count towards the overall mark for a National 5.

How might individual subjects change?

The whole thinking behind Curriculum for Excellence is to help the child's development as a whole. Individual subjects form part of a bigger picture - for instance helping the child grow into a responsible citizen.

There's also an emphasis on what is known in the trade as "deeper learning" - in other words helping students think for themselves and truly understand a topic rather than simply recite facts, figures and formulae.

Inevitably the balance between teaching hard facts and developing those broader skills can often be controversial.

The direction of travel in England is currently quite different with revisions to the National Curriculum spelling out specific things a child should be taught at particular points in their education.

In Scotland, the equivalent guidance is quite different. The focus is on what a child should be able to do by particular points at school rather than how that is achieved.

The National 3s, National 4s and National 5s pay more attention than Standard Grades and O Grades to testing this "deeper learning" and the candidate's ability to put their knowledge into practice.

This could take many forms and the basic idea isn't radical: using Pythagoras Theorem to work out how much material is needed for a woodwork project rather than simply working out the length of a triangle; assessing and analysing themes or information in history and modern studies.

There's also an emphasis on drawing on the skills a student develops in one subject and using them in another. To give a couple of examples, in English, a student might draw on their knowledge of history to analyse the historic context of a novel or, conversely, use their knowledge of English to structure an argument in a history assignment.

Why are many students only doing six Nationals?

Typically, students studied for seven Standard Grades but local authorities have consulted with schools and parents' groups and six Nationals is likely to be more common. One part of the thinking behind this is that it can free up the timetable to help students study topics in more depth or do other things which play a part in the Curriculum for Excellence such as work experience or community work.

However, the picture varies across the country. Some parents have expressed a fear children who are only able to do six Nationals in S4 could lose out to students able to study seven at other schools.

Supporters of the changes make a number of points. For instance, they might argue that what really matters is the number of qualifications a youngster has when they leave school - not how many they have at a particular point. They might study more Nationals after S4.

They would also argue that for the most academically able youngsters, Nationals will often continue to be a stopping off point towards Highers just as Standard Grades were. They might ask how many adults with Highers or university degrees ever go back to quote all their O Grades or Standard Grades on, say, a job application. Instead, these qualifications were often just a staging post on a journey to something more advanced.

It's a big change. What concerns have been expressed?

Some teachers have been concerned about extra pressure on their workload preparing new courses and lesson plans. They believe more could have been done earlier to ease the transition.

Inevitably this is a year when many teachers - and not just students - may be outside their comfort zones with revised courses to teach in new ways.

Another practical concern is about the budget available to buy new textbooks and resource material. Although there are free online resources, there can also be the cost of printing this out to consider.

One big challenge will be to communicate just what the new qualifications mean to parents, the broader public and employers. Even after a quarter of a century, some didn't understand Standard Grades.

However, the principles behind the introduction of the new qualifications and the ongoing implementation of Curriculum for Excellence are not in themselves matters of political controversy within Scotland.