Pupils and teachers are being put under “immense pressure” due to huge increases in the use of dual-presentation in schools, the Scottish Government has been warned.

Freedom of Information disclosures released by Scotland’s exams watchdog shows that the number of dual-presented pupils has increased massively since 2019. For some subjects, the changes represent rises of several hundred percent.

Dual-presentation means that pupils are entered for both National 4 and National 5 courses in the same year, requiring them to complete the assessments and submissions for both levels.

The increases in dual-presentation rates come despite a 2018 decision by the Scottish Government to end the practice in order to reduce workload for both teachers and pupils.

Education secretary Jenny Gilruth has recently written to all local authority Directors of Education in an attempt to reduce the number of dual presentations. However, Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, hit out at “pressure on school to boost their statistics, regardless of the impact on learners,” and called on the Scottish Government to accelerate plans to reform the country’s qualifications system.

In 2019, the number of pupils dual-presented for National 4 and National 5 English stood at 1746. The figure fell slightly the following year, but then began to increase once more. Data from 2023 shows that 5832 pupils were dual presented last year, an increase of 234% over a five year period.

Other subjects with extremely high increases in dual presentation rates included Art & Design (393%), Music (374%) and Spanish (238%).

Although the rates of dual presentation in maths had fallen since 2019, they have increased every year since 2020. At the same time, the number of pupils entered for both National 4 and National 5 in Applications of Maths – a more accessible and practical option that traditional mathematics – just jumped by nearly 250%.

A breakdown of the data shows that there is significant variation across councils, and even within, Scotland’s 31 local authorities, suggesting that different policies have been implemented in different parts of the country.

Professor Louise Hayward, who led the Scottish Government’s review of qualifications, told The Herald that a recent OECD report had found that “Scotland's learners are already amongst the most examined in the world.”

She continued: “Yet, it is easy to understand why teachers would present learners for both N4 and N5 in a subject. Teachers want the best for all their learners, and this acts as a safety net.

“However, for some individuals, probably those who are already finding N5 most challenging, dual presentation may be happening across several subjects putting immense pressure on both them and their teachers.”

Andrea Bradley, General Secretary of the EIS teaching union, echoed concerns about the impact of dual-presentation: “The evidence suggests that, contrary to guidance, schools present whole groups of learners for both qualifications, in the hope that more learners attain N5, but with N4 as a parachute.

“Given the high-stakes nature of the qualifications system, and the pressure on schools to raise attainment, it is unsurprising that many schools take such precautionary approaches to presentations.

“Regardless of the reasons, however, this practice creates an enormous amount of additional work for teachers who have to ensure learners in their classes complete work for two courses at the same time, but it also places additional assessment and associated emotional burdens on learners - particularly those who struggle to attain N5. For many such learners, the joy of learning is replaced by memorisation and rote learning to ‘get over the line’, and a rush to ensure all the appropriate assessments are done.   

“This practice also sends a message that success in exam-based courses trumps achievement in other qualifications. The EIS is clear that that all learners should embark on courses which are matched to their educational needs and that their achievements should be valued equally; and that schools must be provided with the requisite staffing and material resources to ensure that both National 4 and National 5 courses in their own right offer students the opportunity of quality learning experiences."

Ms Bradley added that schools must be staffed appropriately to allow both National 4 and National 5 courses to run “in their own right” and ensure students can complete the course best suited to them.

She added: “To enable the necessary change, the Scottish Government needs to end the delays and make a start on progressing the reform of the qualifications system in line with the recommendations of the Hayward Review.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “A joint Scottish Government, HMIE and SQA communication has been sent to Directors of Education in January, setting out the importance of well informed and accurate presentation decisions.

"All of our young people deserve to experience a rich and meaningful learning and teaching experience tailored according to their needs, part of which is making sure that they are presented at the correct level for national assessments.

"Teacher judgement is key to ensuring that pupils are presented at the most appropriate level for their needs and aspirations and these decisions are rightly taken at a school level.”

A spokesperson for the SQA said: “Entry patterns are a matter for schools, who know their learners best.

“Schools are also best placed to work with learners and their parents/carers to make decisions on individual learning pathways. In reaching these decisions, they should consider the most appropriate qualification level for each learners’ ability and the associated workload implications.

“We reinforced these points in a recent letter to Education Directors, issued jointly with the Cabinet Secretary and the Chief Inspector.”

What is dual-presentation?

This is where a school tells the SQA that a pupil is attempting both National 4 and National 5 in the same subject. It used to be common, but in 2018 the Scottish Government announced it was ending the practice.

Why would a pupil be presented for two different levels at once?

Basically, it’s a safety-net approach. National 5 has a final exam, and every year a certain proportion of students will always be made to fail by the grading decisions that are made, so some pupils will inevitably fall short of a pass. If those students have also completed the internal assessments for National 4, which does not have a final exam, then they will at least pick up some recognition at the lower level and avoid ending the year without an English qualification.

Why is this a problem?

The most immediate issue is the workload it creates for both teachers and students. It can be hard enough to get through all of the work required for a National 5 course without also having to find time – potentially weeks – to complete National 4 assessments on a ‘just in case’ basis. Furthermore, any time spent completing those lower level assessments is, presumably, time that could have been better spent on National 5 work, with the hope of achieving a better grade as a result.

So why is it happening?

According to Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, schools are under significant and increasing pressure “to boost their statistics, regardless of the impact on learners.” The suggestion is that, in some cases, students are being put into National 5 classes for which they aren’t really suited, in the hope that they might secure an unexpected pass and therefore improve the stats. Those pupils are also dual-entered for National 4 so that the gamble doesn’t result in them ending the year with nothing.