Thursday, 15 December 2016

Changes to National Courses

Message from Dr Gill Stewart, Director of Qualifications Development


14 December 2016
Dear Colleague,
Changes to National courses
Following the Deputy First Minister's announcement in September regarding assessment changes to National courses it is clear that subject teachers want to know more about what these changes are. There are also some wider issues for each centre to consider well in advance of the 2017-18 session. The Deputy First Minister was very clear that he wanted to reduce workload for pupils and staff by removing units and unit assessment from the National courses.  
SQA will make the necessary structural changes to the courses and course assessment, requested by the minister. Centres need to think about how they will put the changes into operational practice and explain their decisions to parents and pupils. Our common goal should be to reduce workload for candidates and staff, while maintaining the standards and integrity of the qualifications.
I hope you find the following information on changes to National courses useful when planning for the next session.
What are the changes to National courses?
In order to address workload concerns for teachers and candidates, SQA was asked to remove units and unit assessments from National courses. The current course assessment approach requires candidates to complete internally assessed National units and a course assessment, which is normally an examination question paper and/or coursework. Removing the units and unit assessments means that we need to strengthen the course assessments to maintain 24 SCQF credit points and protect the integrity of National courses.
The changes to course assessment will result in one or more of the following:
  • extension of the existing question paper
  • extension of the existing item of coursework
  • a new question paper
  • a new item of coursework
 Please note that there will be no change to the aims, rationale or content of the courses. Only the assessment arrangements will change along with clarification on content.
When will the changes take effect?
Units and unit assessments will be removed from National courses as follows:
  • National 5 from 2017-18
  • Higher from 2018-2019
  • Advanced Higher from 2019-20
Further subject-specific information for National 5 will be made available at the end of January 2017. This will include a brief explanation of the reason for the specific enhancement to course assessment.
Will the course documentation change?
The removal of units from courses gives SQA the opportunity to streamline existing course documentation – identified as an area of concern for teachers earlier in the year. The revised course documentation will incorporate appropriate issues identified in the course review reports which were published in May 2016.
The revised documents will be published in line with the changes to National courses:
  • 2017-18 for National 5
  • 2018-2019 for Higher
  • 2019-20 for Advanced Higher
The revised Course specification for each National 5 subject will be available at the end of April 2017. This will include mandatory content for delivering and assessing the course. Additional sections, including further support and administration information, will be added to the document by the end of September 2017. These revisions will mean that teachers have all the information they need to deliver their course, within one document.
Where we are modifying a question paper or coursework we will modify the existing specimen question papers and coursework assessment tasks. Where we are introducing new question papers or new items of coursework we will produce new specimen question papers and new coursework assessment tasks. We intend to have these modified or new documents available by the end of September 2017.
Can Recognising Positive Achievement or ‘fallback’ still be used?
Recognising Positive Achievement (RPA) currently supports candidates who have been unsuccessful at National 5 by enabling them to achieve National 4 retrospectively. This arrangement will no longer operate from session 2017-18 onwards as the removal of units from National 5 courses means that the unitised model - on which RPA is based - will no longer exist.
The units that are being removed from National 5 courses will still be available as free-standing units for schools to use as appropriate, as many schools and colleges use the units as component parts of other awards. Free-standing units will be subject to normal SQA verification to ensure the ongoing credibility of national standards.
Are the grades changing?
As reported in our Centre News newsletter on 10 November, the Assessment and National Qualifications (ANQ) group is discussing the possibility of extending the current grade scale below grade C in order to recognise a broader range of learner achievements. We will communicate more information once the change has been finalised.
There has been recent press coverage about extension of the grade scale and its impact on standards. Please be reassured that the standard required to pass a National 5 at Grades A to C will not change. SQA will still calculate pass rates based on those candidates who achieve Grades A to C.
Are National 4 courses changing?
There are currently no planned changes to National 4 courses; however, discussions continue at the ANQ group. Courses will remain internally assessed on a pass or fail basis and be subject to our published external verification arrangements.
SQA is undertaking a second round of fieldwork with schools. We are gathering the views of learners who are doing National 4, or a combination of National 4 and National 5, to feed into the ANQ group discussion, alongside advice from all stakeholders represented on the group.
Are there operational implications?
SQA is working through the significant IT and operational implications of these changes. We are also in discussion with management information system (MIS) providers to ensure they understand the potential changes required to their systems. Discussions are also ongoing with the Scottish Government’s Insight Team who will communicate changes in due course.
Is there support available?
We are grateful for the ongoing working partnership with schools and colleges across Scotland. Our common goal is to reduce workload for teachers and candidates.
SQA staff are available to support schools in making the right decisions regarding the changes to National courses. A number of local authorities have already thought about planning for next session and have requested a visit from us to discuss the changes with Head Teachers. In response to those initial requests for support, we have decided that we will arrange to have SQA staff come out to each authority to assist school leaders make the right decisions for their school.
I appreciate this is a long message, however I wanted to ensure you were kept up to date with regards to progress. Further details will be shared as and when available through direct communications and our website.

Best wishes for the festive season.

Dr Gill Stewart
Director of Qualifications Development
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