Around ten years ago, Scotland’s exam system was overhauled. The previous Standard Grade and Intermediate courses were replaced by new National qualifications, while Higher and Advanced Higher levels were updated. The changes were supposed to help align secondary school qualifications with the broader Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), but is that what really happened?

In the latest in a series of articles exploring Scottish education data, education writer James McEnaney analyses the success rates for pupils who complete a National 4 qualification before moving on to attempt the National 5 the following year.

What exactly is National 4, and how is it different from National 5?

The most obvious difference is that one is more difficult than the other. National 5 (N5) is a level above National 4 (N4), in the same way that Higher is a level above N5.

For those of us whose time in school predates the introduction of the ‘Nationals’, you can think of N4 as having replaced the old General Standard Grade and Intermediate 1 courses, while N5 is comparable to Credit Standard Grade and Intermediate 2. Officially, the equivalent qualification to the old Foundation Standard Grade is now a National 3.

Whether or not the courses are actually aligned in that way remains a matter of some dispute amongst many teachers, with differing views often expressed by those delivering different subjects.

But there is another, more fundamental difference between N4 and N5: the assessment model.

No matter the level of Standard Grade course you completed, you still sat the same type of assessment at the end of the year. The content changed between different levels but the fundamental mechanics did not. That is no longer the case.

N5 has a traditional, or external, exam. In many subjects, a coursework element is also included, but the exam score is the primary determinant of the final award. Nationally, the courses are set up and graded in such a way as to ensure, among other things, that a certain proportion of pupils fail each year: this approach is sometimes called ‘norm referencing.’

N4 courses do not have an external exam. Instead, students complete internal ‘unit assessments’ which test their knowledge and skills in relation to a specific part of the course – generally the part they’ve just completed. They can, however, be assessed when they are ready, as opposed to having to pass on a nationally-determined data, and reassessed multiple times if required. Assessment conditions are also different: everything is done in the classroom rather than a formally invigilated exam hall.

At the end of the year, students complete a final assessment called the Added Value Unit. This is also an internal assessment, which means that it is set and reviewed by the school rather than SQA-appointed markers. Like the unit assessments, it is ‘criterion referenced’, which means that the piece of work is judged against the specific requirements of the course – no norm referencing takes place.

Pupils who successfully complete all of this are awarded a Pass at National 4. Unlike, N5 and above, there is no system for awarding individual grades to students at this level.

What does the data tell us about National 4 to National 5 progression?

The Herald analysed official SQA data on students progressing from National 4 to National 5, focusing on those sitting the latter course in both 2017 and 2023. We removed the data for any qualification with fewer than 100 students in either year, a process which resulted in a final data set of 20 subjects.

In 2017, progression pass rates (students attaining grades A-C) below 50% were recorded for eight subjects: physics, mathematics, geography, biology, modern studies, applications of maths, chemistry, and history.

In a further three subjects – computing science, business and graphic communication – the pass rate stood between 50% and 65%.

In the remaining nine subjects, more than 65% of students successfully passed the National 5 after progressing from National 4 the previous year. These were: administration and IT, design and manufacture, English, music, art and design, practical cookery, English for speakers of other languages, physical education, and practical woodworking.

By 2023, however, the overall picture had worsened. Both English and design and manufacture saw progression pass rates drop below 65%, while in computing science it dropped by 13 percentage points to just 48%.

Of the 20 subjects included in the analysis, only three showed an improved progression pass rate over the six year period in question: physical education and history recorded one percentage point increases, and in Applications of Mathematics (formerly Lifeskills Mathematics) the figure rose by nine percentage points.

At the same time, eight subjects recorded double-digit falls in progression pass rates: mathematics, graphic communication, computing science, geography, physics, design and manufacture, modern studies, and English for speakers of other languages.

What is causing this problem?

When the new qualifications were being developed, it was never the intention that every student who completes N4 would progress to N5 level the following year. There are many college courses and apprenticeships which only require N4 qualifications, and it has always been the case that some students did not progress, in some or all subjects, beyond the equivalent of a General Standard Grade.

However, this data concerns only the students who do want to progress, and it shows that in a number of subject areas the chances of successful progression appear to be not just slim, but worsening.

But why is this happening?

There are certainly long-standing concerns about the N4 as a qualification.

For some, the lack of a final exam is, in and of itself, a sign that N4 awards can’t really be trusted. There are, of course, plenty of internally assessed courses available within the education system, and the N4 structure is, in reality, not dissimilar to the type of approach that people might expect when completing professional qualifications – but the problem is that the lack of an exam in N4 is inevitably contrasted with the approach at N5, Higher and Advanced Higher levels. If all of those qualifications used criterion referenced assessments then perhaps things would be different, but as it stands N4 is singled out as the only one that does so.

The ungraded nature of the N4 courses also generates specific problems when considering progression. A student who struggles through the course and only completes it with considerable support from their teacher (which is a regular and, for the most part, valid occurance) receives the same award as someone who significantly exceeds all of the course and assessment requirements. This can make it difficult to predict whether or not a student is likely to cope with the step up to N5.

But none of this entirely explains the variations between subjects or the overall decline in progression pass rates over the past six years.

Some teachers (notably science and mathematics specialists) often complain that N4 does not articulate well with the higher levels of study, and argue that the N5 and Higher course specifications require them to cover an unmanageable amount of content. Comments about the course assignment are often unprintable.

Perhaps the jump from N4 to N5 is larger (whether that be in terms of difficulty, workload, or both) in some subjects than others – but if so, is this fair on students?

As for the shifting stats, that could conceivably, at least in part, be a complicated consequence of school accountability data. Schools have been put under huge pressure to maximise the number of students gaining level 5 qualifications, so perhaps they are now pushing more and more borderline pupils towards N5? That would leave a weaker cohort of N4 students, with the result that those pupils then don’t do as well when they attempt N5.

The truth is that nobody seems sure.

Professor Louise Hayward from the University of Glasgow led the recent Independent Review of Qualification and Assessment. Having viewed the data, she told The Herald: "Behind each number is a person and these data show that, in some subjects, too many young people and adult learners are not progressing successfully from N4 to N5. We need to understand why. and to use that information to improve progression for learners.

She also pointed out that this issue was raised during her review. The official report notes that the issue of progression was raised “consistently”, and that the “relationship between National 4, National 5 and Higher in subjects across the curriculum was perceived to be problematic.”

Prof Hayward recommended that courses be reviewed to ensure better progression and more coherence with the rest of the curriculum.

Another prominent and respected education academic, Prof Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh, described the data on N4 to N5 progression as “very striking”.

He suggested that the apparent problems in some subjects, and the overall declines across the past six years, could be linked to a number of factors such as perceptions of the value of the qualification, changing school policies around entering students for different levels of study, or a lack of alignment between N5, N4 and the broader CfE.

A spokesperson for the SQA said: “Teachers and lecturers know their learners best and understand the level of demand of the qualifications. The national progression statistics can be used to help inform their advice and guidance to their learners on their next steps. There are a variety of reasons why there are differences in pass rates within progression pathways for different subjects between National 4 and National 5, such as individual learner circumstances and the change from an internally assessed course to an externally assessed course.

“When the Broad General Education and the new National Courses were developed and introduced in 2013 there was strong alignment as SQA and Education Scotland worked together on it. However there has been incremental changes to both the Broad General Education and the National Courses and we need to review that alignment as part of the curriculum improvement cycle announced by the Cabinet Secretary in December 2023, and we would want to work with others in the education community to address this. 

“The progression statistics for 2021-22 into 2022-23 can’t be compared with progression statistics from previous years without consideration of the context of the pandemic, which saw moderated external assessments only return in 2022, with none in 2020 and 2021.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson told the Herald: “As announced in December, a curriculum improvement cycle will begin this year which will consider how to better align the broad general education and senior phase, ensuring smoother progression between all levels and at all stages. 

“Schools are best places to consider the right qualification progression pathways for young people in looking at courses. A joint Scottish Government, HMIE and SQA communication was sent to Directors of Education last month, setting out the importance of well informed and accurate presentation decisions. As part of any reform to qualifications, ensuring progression pathways are clear will be key.”