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‘Education should be equitable’: Should all schools offer eight National 5s?

Some schools limit the number of National 5 courses young people can take to six, while others allow them the maximum of eight.
Some schools limit the number of National 5 courses young people can take to six, while others allow them the maximum of eight.

The number of qualifications an S4 pupil can gain varies depending on the school they attend.

Some schools limit the number of National 5 courses young people can take to six, while others allow them the maximum of eight.

But should there be a cap on the number of exams 15 and 16-year-olds can sit in fourth year, or does taking fewer subjects risk them being disadvantaged?

Under the Curriculum for Excellence pupils in Scotland can sit up to eight Nat 5 exams but the maximum allowed varies between five and eight across schools and council areas.

Dundee City Council argues that allowing pupils six subjects can improve attainment, giving them more time to study them properly.

But we spoke to one parent from the city who says this could disadvantage pupils and is calling for a consistent approach across Scotland.

How do National 5s differ from Standard Grades?

When the Curriculum for Excellence was introduced in 2014, National 4s and 5s replaced Standard Grades.

Under the previous system, pupils generally sat eight Standard Grades which were taught over a two year period. Nat 4s and 5s are studied in S4 only.

Use our table to see how many National 5s pupils at your child’s school can take: 

Secondary schools in Dundee follow the model of six exams subjects in S4, meaning this is the recommended number of Nat 5 subjects which can be taken.

This not the case, however, for the other council areas in Tayside and Fife.

In Angus there is no council guidance relating to a maximum offer for pupils. Instead pupils “embark on the number and level of courses suited to their need and the design of the curriculum in the school they attend”, a council spokeswoman said.

In Fife, each school determines the number of Nat 5s pupils can take; this is usually six or seven.

Pupils at independent schools are often offered eight Nat 5 subjects, with the High School of Dundee confirming the majority of its students take the maximum offer.

“It doesn’t seem fair”

Dundee mum Clare Webster is one parent who is concerned about the disparity in the exam offering between schools and local authorities.

She said: “On a basic level, it doesn’t seem fair. The main reasons for being concerned about it is that children will end up with fewer qualifications.

“But also I’m worried about choice being limited quite so early. I feel that lots of young people might not know what they want to do at the age of 14.”

“Education should be equitable so even if it’s the individual schools [making the choice on maximum numbers], when six is your limit I feel it’s disadvantaging some children.”

Ms Webster says the option for eight exams should be open to all pupils, even if most may opt to take less.

She added: “All children should be sitting seven or eight, I think it should be on an individualised basis. The option should be there.”

Can capping exams be beneficial?

Capping the number of Nat 5 exams allows pupils more time to learn the curriculum and can improve attainment, one local authority said.

A spokesman for Dundee City Council said: “The model of six exam subjects in S4, which is followed in Dundee schools, leads to more learning time and is helping to improve attainment.

“This approach is developed in consultation with head teachers, and discussions and review of the curriculum continue on an ongoing basis.

“There are many developments in Dundee as schools diversify the senior phase.

“Our schools now offer more opportunities to our young people in S4, S5 and S6 including Foundation Apprenticeships, National Progression Awards, Professional Development Awards and Scottish Group Awards.”

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