Pupils Face Exams 'Lottery', Say Think-Tank

17 May 2016, 07:15

Pupils face a "lottery'' in the number of exams they are allowed to sit at different schools across Scotland, according to a think-tank.

Research by Reform Scotland has uncovered an "inequality in opportunity'' for youngsters taking National 4 and 5s, which replaced the old standard grade exams in 2014.

Freedom of information requests to councils revealed that while some pupils are permitted to sit eight exams in S4, others, regardless of their ability, are limited to just five depending on their school.

The think-tank said it was "ironic and disappointing'' that Curriculum for Excellence reforms, brought in to broaden pupils' education, were in fact narrowing it and placing some young people at a disadvantage.

Keir Bloomer, a member of the Reform Scotland advisory board and chair of the Commission on School Reform, said: "Our research shows that inequality of opportunity is now built into our examination system, not by the SQA but by decisions made mainly at council level.

"This is an unintended consequence of the way Curriculum for Excellence is being interpreted.''

The research found while some local authorities impose a blanket decision on the maximum number of exams across the council area, others allow individual schools to decide.

Among the schools where only five National 4 and 5s can be studied are Torry Academy in Aberdeen, Braes High School in Falkirk, Bell Baxter High School in Fife and Elgin High School in Moray.

Mr Bloomer, a former director of education at Clackmannanshire Council, added: "The intention was to extend the broader education provided in S1 and S2 into S3, with students beginning their examination courses in S4 only.

"Decisions to reduce the number of subjects a student may sit seem to have been based on a crude calculation of the number of hours of study available in S4.

"However, this is effectively saying that nothing studied in earlier years counts towards the knowledge of the subject required for the exams.

"Curriculum for Excellence had the admirable aim of broadening our children's education, but in this case it is narrowing it.

"This is not an issue of the preferences or ability of the student. Instead, it is a lottery based on the school a young person attends.

"The result is that a very able student at one school could emerge with fewer qualifications than a similarly able student at a different school.''

Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith accused the SNP of "turning a blind eye'' to inequalities in the exam system.

She said: "Subject choice is a hugely significant issue for obvious reasons but, in far too many schools, that choice is being constrained because of local authority decisions which have reduced the number of subjects available and/or the number of teachers available. It is not just national 4 and 5s that are suffering but highers and advanced highers too.

"This has major implications for college and university entrance and so it is little wonder that so many parents are concerned about what is happening.''

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Individual education authorities and schools make decisions about the curriculum and the number of qualifications pupils can sit to ensure they best meet the needs of their pupils, taking local circumstances into account.

"Curriculum for Excellence as a whole is about providing learners with the range of qualifications and experiences that meet their individual needs and aspirations - it goes much wider than the number of exams that young people study in one particular year.''

A spokesman for council body Cosla said: "It is disappointing that this report has chosen to interpret the data received from councils in this way.

"There is no inequality of opportunity in terms of presentation for these exams and the decisions taken by councils and their schools are rightly and properly based on a range of education-related factors.

"To suggest that councils treat Curriculum for Excellence as a lottery ignores the quality of outcomes already achieved by Scottish pupils, since CfE National 4 and 5 exams were introduced.

"The hard facts are that the national performance for schools has seen an improvement since CfE was introduced and we should be positive about this rather than all doom and gloom.''