Gill Stewart: Teaching our children to think for themselves

Scottish pupils will soon be sitting National Qualifications. Picture: Getty
Scottish pupils will soon be sitting National Qualifications. Picture: Getty
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THE exam season is in full swing, with young people from Edinburgh and the Lothians among 152,000 in Scotland sitting more than 732,000 final assessments.

Everyone at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) wishes them well. Good qualifications are really important in helping young people progress successfully from school onto their next steps in life.

This is very much a transition year for qualifications – the last year of Standard Grades, which have served Scotland well for 25 years. New National Qualifications (Nationals 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5) are being introduced and will be taken for the first time by pupils moving from S3 into S4.

These changes are not just about new qualifications – they are about a different way of learning.

Children moving into S4 have already been learning under the principles of Curriculum for Excellence – with its emphasis on linking together different subjects and taking a more practical, skills-based approach that helps to better prepare young people for the modern world.

The new qualifications reflect this, with greater emphasis on course work and learning throughout the whole school year.

The aim is broader than before – it’s about helping young people to acquire knowledge and also about being able to use that knowledge in a practical way. For example, engineering students will be given real engineering problems (about flood defences or wind farms, for example) and asked to apply their knowledge and skills to come up with solutions – and then test those solutions.

It is about students gaining a deeper understanding of what they are being taught – and learning the skills to apply and interpret the knowledge they acquire.

For the new National Qualifications, understanding the key concepts of a subject (like the laws of physics) remains crucial and students will still be asked to apply this in exams. However, there will be an increase in the amount of course work at National 5 (equivalent to Credit level at Standard Grade) to reflect the understanding and skills developed throughout the whole year.

National 4 qualifications (replacing Standard Grade General level courses) will be entirely awarded on internal assessment, which means they will be marked by teachers in schools. SQA staff will work closely with teachers to guarantee standards across Scotland, with fair, consistent and high-
quality assessment everywhere. Regular checks by SQA will ensure internal assessment is working well.

Once more, the best of luck to exam candidates seeking the right qualifications to help move forward in life – but if it doesn’t work out the way you expect, don’t panic! Take a deep breath and think carefully about your strengths, where you want to go and how to get there.

This might be one of hundreds of vocational qualifications developed by SQA or one of several new awards designed to prepare young people for the modern world – including awards in Employability, Leadership, Personal Finance and more.

Our children all have different talents – and there are many different pathways and qualifications to help them achieve their ambitions and realise their potential.

• For more details on the changes to qualifications, visit

Dr Gill Stewart is SQA’s director of qualifications development