Reform Scotland

National 4s & 5s: The accidental attainment gap

Reform Scotland says sharp reduction in National 4s and 5s available in many schools is narrowing educational opportunity for children

New research released today by Reform Scotland, the independent think tank, exposes a disturbing decline in the number of National 4s and 5s school pupils are being allowed to sit.

Our investigation, National 4s and 5s: The Accidental Attainment Gap, has found that:

  • the maximum number of N4s or N5s a pupil can sit varies from five to nine depending entirely on the school they go to, not on their ability
  • only a minority of Scottish state schools now allow pupils to sit more than six exams, with a few offering only five
  • independent schools continue to offer eight or nine

The research, based on data provided to Reform Scotland by local authorities under Freedom of Information laws, follows a similar investigation in 2016. It shows the situation has worsened considerably since then, with state schools continuing to reduce the number of exams children are permitted to sit, regardless of ability.

The full tables, broken down by local authority, are in the paper. Specific examples:

  • In 2016, all schools in Edinburgh, East Dunbartonshire and Dumfries & Galloway offered 8 exams; now no schools in either East Dunbartonshire or Dumfries & Galloway offer 8, and the limit in Edinburgh varies between 6 and 8
  • East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire are largely similar local authorities in socio-economic terms. In East Renfrewshire, all children can sit eight or more exams. In East Dunbartonshire, no children are permitted to do so. How does East Dunbartonshire Council justify this to children and parents who are being prevented from gaining as many qualifications as those in East Renfrewshire, particularly given the most recent statistics showing East Renfrewshire to be the highest performing authority in the country in terms of Higher exam results?

We are in real danger of opening up a new type of attainment gap in Scotland – one where children who are allowed to sit eight or nine National 4s or 5s will have a distinct advantage over those restricted to five or six, regardless of the latter’s ability. The schools cutting the number of exams on offer are typically those serving our more deprived communities, further limiting the life opportunities of children who may already be disadvantaged."

“The potential of those children whose parents can afford to choose private education, or to move to a catchment area where the school allows more subjects to be chosen, is unaffected. This appears to be an unintended consequence of the Curriculum for Excellence and it is one the Scottish Government must look at urgently. We should be removing the hurdles that stand in the way of disadvantaged children, not adding new ones.”

One of the purposes of CfE was to broaden pupils’ education, but instead the way in which it is being implemented is narrowing it significantly."

“There is ample opportunity for pupils to combine practical and academic options when they are enabled to sit nine, eight, or even seven exams, but when we narrow it down to six or five there is very little room for manoeuvre."

“Someone attending a school which allows only a low number of exams to be sat and who leaves after fourth year will find themselves with fewer qualifications than other leavers; those going on to study Highers will have a smaller pool of subjects from which to choose."

“Parents, many of whom will have had the opportunity to sit eight Standard Grades, will not understand why their children are facing a narrowing of subjects."

“Reducing the number of subject options is not a government policy. It has come about by accident; the unintended consequence of ill-conceived advice. This is the hallmark of poor management."

“This is a lose, lose.”

Update: The attached briefing has been updated to include the results for South Lanarkshire. The council had failed to respond to our request and, as a result, its results were not included in the original briefing.