THE reform of the curriculum and qualifications in Scotland’s schools has always been a hugely ambitious project so it is only natural that it has raised worries and anxieties among teachers and parents. There has been reasonable support for the basic principle of the changes – the desire to encourage a broader, deeper type of learning – but three years into National 4, many parents are concerned that it is a second-rate choice, particularly because there is no exam at the end of the course. And now, to add to the worries, a new poll of teachers appears to show that the changes are having a troubling effect on the pupils too.

According to the survey for Ipsos Mori, some teachers feel that the introduction of the new National qualifications had led to increased disengagement among some pupils. “The lack of an exam was felt to devalue the award which had an impact on pupils’ self-esteem,” says the report.

The report also says there were concerns expressed by teachers about the broader curriculum over the first three years of secondary. “They had previously found that the move into S3 signalled a time when pupils become more focused as they started studying for qualifications,” it says. The feeling now is that pupils are unfocused for longer.

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These are worrying findings, but they are also a reflection of how profound the changes to our education system are. Before the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence, teachers and pupils would start to focus on exams in third year, with the impending tests acting as a motivation for the work. But the whole point of Curriculum of Excellence was to challenge that idea; the aim was to give pupils room to breathe and explore different areas without the impending doom of an exam all the time. That was, and still is, a sound idea for change.

However, if the new arrangements are leading to pupils feeling less engaged and motivated, that must be tackled. There will be some who will say that the answer is to

revert to the old system, but an examination is not necessarily the only way to motivate pupils and for many exams can be counter-productive. The challenge for schools and Education Scotland is to find the best way to challenge and engage their pupils; they have to ask themselves if pupils are struggling, what can we do to interest and engage them, and it will not be straightforward. We are in transition from a system where exams were the be-all and end-all to one that will hopefully be more tailored to individuals and that is going to take some time.

Having said that, the concerns about National 4 will have to be resolved, and resolved swiftly, if its reputation is to be protected and improved and the effect on pupils is to be minimised.

One particularly worrying problem highlighted by the report is that parents are pushing for their child to complete the more advanced National 5 qualification

– which has an examination – even if the school is recommending they should be completing National 4 instead. According to the report from Ipsos Mori, this means some pupils are being forced to work at a level that is not appropriate for their abilities.

That problem will not be fixed until parents are convinced

that National 4 is a valuable qualification, and that may mean some element of external assessment will be necessary.

The idea of introducing some differentiation in the qualification in the form of several grades is also worth considering.

Whatever the solution, it must be done as quickly as possible. The reforms to Scotland’s curriculum and exams are important and worthwhile, but they are not being done in academic isolation. There are thousands of pupils working towards National 4 in the current school year and we owe it to them to ensure the new system works and works well.