National 4s: What are the questions around this qualification?

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland education correspondent

  • Published
Pupils writingImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
National 4 and 5 qualifications effectively replaced standard grades in 2013

Concerns have been raised over a drop in entries for National 4 qualifications, with some calling for a review of the award. Here I look at what they are, and why there is a debate around them.

What is the National 4?

The National 4 is one of the two qualifications which effectively replaced Standard Grades in the school year 2013-14.

It's usually taken by students in S4 and does not involve a final exam.

As a broad rule, students studying for a National 4 might have studied for a Standard Grade at a general, or even foundation, level under the old system. Until the late 1980s, their counterparts might not even have had the chance to study for O grades.

Generally speaking, academically able children study for National 5 qualifications in S4 then go on to study for Highers in S5 - however some schools are keen to encourage the most able to miss out N5s and spend two years working towards their Highers and a few do this routinely.

What is the purpose of a National 4 qualification?

Although it's possible to leave school at 16, S4, S5 and S6 are now brought together as the "senior phase" in secondary schools. The emphasis now is on what a youngster has achieved by the time they leave school rather than on what they have at the end of a particular year.

Schools try to design systems which allow all youngsters to get something of value in S5 or S6 - not just those studying for several Highers or Advanced Highers. It is unusual now to leave school at the end of S4 and schools would be concerned if a youngster left early without a so-called "positive destination" such as a college course or a modern apprenticeship.

While a National 4 could be the "exit level" qualification for someone leaving at the end of S4 in practice this is unusual now.

The thinking is that a National 4 in S4 may help a youngster go to get a more advanced qualification, perhaps a National 5 in fifth year. In that sense it could be seen as a "pathway" qualification which helps a student towards something else rather than as an end in itself.

Some in the profession believe it is not a good thing for children to study for qualifications which will be superseded a year later - they would say it is better for the young person to focus their efforts towards eventually attaining the most advanced qualification they can. This could mean a youngster aiming their efforts towards a National 5 in S5 rather than getting a N4 first.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Pupils don't have to sit an exam for a National 4 qualification

But do we know what the youngsters who get National 4 qualifications go on to do?

No. There are no national figures at present which actually show how many National 4 candidates go straight on to study for more advanced school or college qualifications. Any evidence is purely anecdotal. Many believe research to find out exactly how National 4s are being used by teachers and candidates across Scotland would be helpful.

Why is there concern now?

There has been a significant ongoing decline in the number of entries for the National 4 qualification. The number of entries has dropped from 130,000 in 2015 to 116,000 now.

Do we know why this is?

In a nutshell, no. But there are a number of possible explanations - some suggest problems, others believe the new system is simply settling down.

One explanation is that teachers are becoming more confident about how to make the best use of the suite of new qualifications. There may be fewer examples of students being entered for a National 4 and a National 5 simultaneously because teachers were unsure which one was best suited to that candidate.

But some also claim that teachers may simply be reluctant to use the National 4 qualification. Critics claim it lacks credibility because there is no externally assessed final exam.

There is also anecdotal evidence that some teachers may be using the National 5 - roughly equivalent to a credit pass in a standard grade - as the default option, even for youngsters who may, arguably, be better suited to a National 4.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Scottish government has no plans to scrap National 4s

Will National 4s be scrapped?

The Scottish government does not intend to do this.

Should an external exam be introduced?

There is a mix of opinion within the teaching profession. However, if an external exam were to be introduced it would pose a big question: "What then was the point of abolishing Standard Grades?"

Should a parent be worried about this debate?

They should not be alarmed but any parent should know what level of achievement a qualification represents; why a school believes it is the right pathway for their child and what the qualification could lead to. It is also important for potential employers to be aware of what qualifications represent.

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