National 5 Modern Studies. Some thoughts on Knowledge & Understanding.

April 18, 2020
Category: Blog,Modern Studies

I’ve spent a fair wee while under the bonnet of National 5 Modern Studies.

I’m aware there’s been a bit of chat about the new course and some of the 2019 exam questions weren’t universally popular but I haven’t been involved in these discussions.

I thought I’d give you my thoughts as they are untainted by what anybody else is saying or the pressures of having presented candidates. They are the views of someone looking in, very much from the outside as it’s been some time since I’ve spent any time with Nat 5, as it’s called. If I state the blindingly obvious I apologise!

The Course Specification

The first thing I noticed is how detailed the Course Spec is. I think teachers appreciate this level of detail and the degree of certainty it brings in terms of what questions can be asked in exams.

It is good that there is an either/or choice all the way through the course. You would expect that teachers would opt for breadth and choose perhaps Democracy in Scotland in Nat 5 and Democracy in the UK at Higher. Social Inequalities at Nat 5 (hmm, see later!) and Crime and the Law at Higher. A World Issue at Nat 5 and a World Power at Higher. Or the other way about.

I’m aware of some high achieving schools who are not bothering teaching Nat 5 at all as a course and doing a two year Higher as all their youngsters are staying on for Higher. Nat 5 is just there as a drop down if they can’t cope. Interesting.

Political Issues: Democracy in Scotland/UK

All mainstream stuff. It’s good to see the content rationalised a bit. Just the one voting system under the microscope in both options. Interesting that although teachers may well touch on STV to illustrate a weakness of AMS/FPTP there’s no need to spend too much time on it. (The Brexiteers did us a favour taking away the d’hondt party list system!) Interesting that while the work of committees is covered in Scotland, it’s not at Westminster. The House of Lords is more interesting IMHO and that seems to me to be a good call.

Social Issues in the United Kingdom

This is where things become a bit of a fankle. Right now, if I was teaching Nat 5 Modern Studies I’d give Social Inequality a very wide berth and teach Crime and the Law instead.

Firstly, because while the content is the meat and potatoes of Modern Studies it can be depressing. It has to be said! Secondly, there are flaws with the Course Spec or at least interpretations of the Course spec, which weren’t revealed in the Specimen Paper but became apparent in the 2019 paper.

Specimen Paper

There’s good, straightforward questions here.

Question 8 Groups that experience inequality in the UK

  • Women
  • Ethnic Minorities
  • Elderly

Choose one of the groups above or any other group you have studied. Describe, in detail, two ways the Government has tried to reduce the inequalities experienced by the group you have chosen. (4)


Question 9 Some people in the UK have a better standard of living than others.

Explain, in detail, two reasons why some people in the UK have a better standard of living than others. (6)


Question 10 There are many groups in the UK which experience social and economic inequality. Explain, in detail, two reasons why one or more groups you have studied experience social and economic inequality in the UK. (6)


All of the above questions deal with inequality, which is what the Section is, or should be about, as that’s what it’s called.

2019 Question Paper

Look now at the 2019 paper questions.

Question 8 There are several consequences of inequality on communities.

Describe, in detail, two consequences social and economic inequality can have on communities. (4)

I think that’s a very hard question for Nat 5. The marking instructions (MIs) either reflect the fact that

  1. They don’t relate to the question or
  2. They were amended once candidate responses came in which were all about poverty, not inequality.

The MIs are about poverty, not inequality, which is different. There is actually no mention at all in the MIs about the consequences of inequality, which actually was the question. They are all about poverty.

Looking at it again, the question also assumes that economic inequality is a problem. For some people, of a Rightish political persuasion, economic equality, not inequality is a problem. It’s not my point of view but it is a legitimate one.

If the question instead asked

There are several consequences of poverty on communities.

Describe, in detail, two social and economic poverty can have on communities. (4)

all would be fine.

It’s an easy fix.

In this case it was just a 4 marker so perhaps in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal but Question 9 also seems to reveal this confusion about the difference between social inequality and poverty.

Question 9 Inequality is a problem in Scotland and the UK.

Describe, in detail, two ways that highlight that inequality in Scotland and/or the UK is a problem. (6)

Individuals, families, communities and society can be unequal without being poor. In fact, is that not UK and Scottish Government ideology? Neither are seeking economic equality, just to make everyone better off.

The MIs in this question do not mention inequality and the examples given are the problems of poverty, not the problems of inequality.

Again, if the question was “Poverty is a problem in Scotland and the UK” Describe, in detail, two ways that highlight that poverty in Scotland and/or the UK is a problem. (6)

all would be ok.

Attempt EITHER Question 10(a) OR 10(b)

Question 10 (a) The private sector has a role to play in tackling social and economic inequality.

Explain, in detail, why the private sector has been successful in tackling social and economic inequality. You should give a maximum of three reasons in your answer. (8)

Once again, the MIs don’t relate to the question. Most of the expected responses in the MIs are about private sector initiatives to offer opportunities, not tackle inequality. Modern Apprenticeships are about training and opportunity, not about reducing the Gini co-efficient.

10(b) Discrimination is one cause of social and economic inequality.

Explain, in detail, why discrimination can cause social and economic inequality for a group you have studied. You should give a maximum of three reasons in your answer. (8)

10(b) is fine, as were all the questions in the Specimen paper.

I guess my beef in this whole Section is that it’s entirely possible to have fair, mainstream and transparent questions but it’s also very easy to put candidates in the wrong direction.

There’s a confusion over inequality and poverty.

Putting the catch all “any other valid point” at the end of the MIs isn’t ok if the candidate has given up the ghost because the question is too hard.

Understanding Standards

Understanding Standards is based on the 2019 paper.

Candidate 1, who is a marginal candidate gets 41/80 overall. He/she only gets 6/18 for the Social Inequality describe/explain questions. These questions were their worst answered of all the Sections. (Candidate 2, is a much stronger candidate overall did Crime and the Law, so it’s hard to find much evidence here.)

Hopefully there’s some thinking going on about clarifying what is required. Going through the Course Spec, if “inequality” was changed to “inequality of opportunity” or “poverty” the problems would be solved.

The Course Report acknowledges that “There was evidence that some candidates did not fully understand the questions and therefore gave an incorrect answer” so hopefully SQA will see that the problem lies with the Course Spec/Questions rather than with the candidates.

Crime and the Law

By contrast with Social Inequality, this all looks good, interesting and mainstream Modern Studies stuff!

The Specimen Paper is uncontroversial, however, like in Social Inequality, a couple of problems seemed to have flared up in 2019.

The first, Question 12, isn’t the fault of the design of the course, it’s just a really bad question. Sometimes questions can be too open ended.

Question 12 Crime is a problem in Scotland and the UK.

Describe, in detail, two ways that highlight that crime in Scotland and/or the UK is a problem.

You’d have been as well asking “tell us all you know about crime in Scotland”!

It’s obvious that this question comes from the Nature of Crime section in the Course Spec, which is fine and is looking for description of crime stats, which is fine also.

So, why not ask that?

A question stem such as “Statistics show that crime is a problem in Scotland and the UK” would focus the candidates on what they had to write about.

The second one, Question 13, unlucky for some, is very tough indeed!

Q13 The criminal courts in Scotland are effective in tackling crime.

Explain, in detail, why the criminal courts in Scotland are effective in tackling crime. You should give a maximum of three reasons in your answer.

When I saw “effectiveness of criminal courts in tackling crime” in the Course Spec I knew there would be trouble, especially if an 8 mark question, the toughest KU there can be at Nat 5, is to be asked.

Which in 2019 it was.

In writing content for my website for this I genuinely struggled to find answers. Unsurprisingly, the SQA MIs do too.

The MIs for this question are all about what prisons do, rather than the criminal courts! It was actually a question about prisons rather than the criminal courts. In Understanding Standards, the strong candidate did well to get 4/8 and that was with some pretty generous marking applied.

I’d suggest a review of the Course Spec here as there is a limit to what the criminal courts can do to tackle crime. That’s not really their job. Their job is to decide whether a person is guilty, not guilty or not proven. If guilty, what the appropriate punishment should be. All the criminal courts can do is give punishments which may be a deterrent to crime. That’s about it. There’s not a lot for a Nat 5 candidate to be able to write about here. Not too many Point Explain Examples.

World Powers

It’s pretty obvious SQA thinks centres will teach either the USA or China and that’s fair enough. There can’t be too many schools who teach G7 member, Italy. The coverage is all good mainstream stuff and I don’t see too many issues. It’s good that the number and range of issues is specified.

Again, the Specimen Question Paper is very reasonable but another needlessly bizarre question popped up in 2019!

Question 16. Social and economic issues are experienced by some people.

Explain, in detail, two reasons why some people experience social and economic issues. In your answer you must state the world power you have studied. (6)

Don’t all people experience social and economic issues?

It’s another needlessly vague and unfocussed question.

This seems to me an obvious question about inequalities and unsurprisingly this is exactly what the MIs focus on.

Once again, the solution seems to be a transparency in what is being looked for.

In Understanding Standards, the stronger candidate coped with the tricky question and wrote well (6/6) about inequalities but the weaker candidate only got 2/6.

(Actually IMHO the weaker candidate was treated a bit harshly “The candidate begins by providing an irrelevant point regarding Hispanics experiencing language barriers, however this is not a valid point as the candidate describes a barrier to equality rather than the reason why some people experience social inequality such as poverty”. Why not accept a barrier to equality? The question is asking about an issue and he/she is describing an issue.

World Issues

There’s clearly a wider range of issues which could be taught

  • a significant regional or international conflict (war or terrorism)  
  • a significant regional or international economic issue
  • a significant regional or international humanitarian issue

and it would be nice to see a bit of creativity here and the scope for schools to follow the interests of the many young people who are interested in climate change. Terrorism, sadly, is still with us though.


Nat 5 Modern Studies is an attractive course.

If you taught, say,

Scottish/UK Politics, there’s plenty of fascinating things going on to capture young people’s enthusiasms and teach the important subject skills and broader curricular skills.

Crime and the Law, it’s all good stuff.

Likewise, with either a world power or issue.

I’ll talk about the Source Questions and the Assignment in another blog, if that’s ok!

I think it would be good to revisit some of the wording in the Course Spec, especially in Social Inequality and this is the Section that needs a fair bit of TLC.

The 2019 Question Paper wasn’t the best, hopefully lessons have been learned.

Any comments grateful received!