Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

A test of fairness

Reform Scotland has called on the Scottish Government urgently to change its advice to schools so that all pupils are again permitted to sit eight exams in S4. The demand is contained in a new briefing paper, A Test of Fairness, published today.

Keir Bloomer, Chair of Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform and an architect of Curriculum for Excellence – though not involved in the flawed implementation – argues that changes to the curriculum have created a postcode lottery. Today, the educational opportunities for pupils differ wildly depending not on ability, but on which catchment area they live in or whether they are in the state or private sector.

In 2014, as part of Curriculum for Excellence, the Standard Grade exams system was replaced with National 4 and 5s. Where Standard Grades were taught over S3 and S4, a two-year period, National 4 and 5s are supposedly studied in S4 only. The concept of Broad General Education (BGE), previously studied in S1 and S2, was extended up to the end of S3. However, this change to a single year of study has had a timetabling consequence. As a result, the majority of state schools now allow pupils to sit a maximum of only six National 4s and 5s, rather than eight.

Reform Scotland’s research, first conducted in 2016 and repeated earlier this year, highlighted that some schools have ignored the change to S3 and still allow pupils to study subjects over two years. This means their pupils still sit up to eight exams. However, other schools are following the new curriculum to the letter, meaning their pupils often only sit six exams. This has created a huge difference in opportunity based purely on where a child goes to school. The situation has worsened over the period of the two pieces of research.

Curriculum for Excellence was supposed to broaden education and opportunity, but it is becoming increasingly clear that its implementation is narrowing it.
“We are seeing a postcode lottery where pupils who are capable of successfully sitting eight exams are being prevented from so doing. This is narrowing their education and limiting their prospects as they move towards Highers and then to college or University. The Scottish Government must put an urgent stop to this by making it clear to all schools that pupils may sit eight exams, and that BGE can once again cease after S2. They can do this temporarily until they get a grip on what is going on here, but do it they must, for we are in grave danger of minimising the potential of a generation of our young people.”

Keir Bloomer