Students are being misinformed about the necessity to take the National 5 Applications of Mathematics course.

National 5 Mathematics (course code C847 75) and National 5 Applications of Mathematics (course code C844 75) are two distinct courses with different objectives and learning intentions. The University of the Highlands and Islands sums it up quite well when they state on their website, ‘if you require a Mathematics qualification at level 5 but are looking for an alternative to National 5 Mathematics, then National 5 Applications of Mathematics may be for you.’ (source: https://www.inverness.uhi.ac.uk/courses/national-5-national-5-applications-of-mathematics/).

National 5 Applications of Mathematics, or Apps as it is commonly referred to, is a rebranding of a legacy course called National 5 Lifeskills Mathematics. As the name suggests the laudable intention of that course was to develop learners practical Mathematical skills, mostly numerical skills, which could be applied to real-world situations such as finance, travel and everyday geometry. The Apps course has essentially the same content but is assessed by final exam where Lifeskills was assessed continuously at the end of each unit. Lifeskills was considered a ‘school-leavers’ qualification which gave students some practical skills to take into adult life and somewhat demonstrated to employers a candidate’s ability to use numerical and basic Mathematical concepts. 

The Apps course retains this intention but extends the scope beyond practical skills to, as the name suggests, apply various Mathematical techniques to both everyday life and other disciplines. For example, the skills developed in the Apps course could be applied to science courses, technology or various others. Recent studies suggest that current school-leavers will, on average, change job role 20 times in their life, so the ability to apply skills – not just Maths – to solve different problems will be key for this group. And this is one of the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence – to prepare learners for the world they’ll actually find themselves in. So, the Apps course is well intentioned and potentially meets the needs of a wide range of candidates. Furthermore, some higher education institutions are now starting to recognise Apps as evidence of numerical / Mathematical skill in courses such as primary teaching, nursing and some undergraduate programs. This is understandable since the full National 5 Mathematics course does not contain much numeracy or practical skills and is more focused on ‘pure’ Mathematical content such as algebra which lays the foundation for students going onto Higher Mathematics and associated disciplines. Most degree courses which require a high school Maths qualification still have National 5 Maths, not Apps, as the minimum level. 

But it has become clear that schools are not pitching the Apps course to their students as an, albeit potentially useful, alternative to National 5 Mathematics. Rather they are slipping it into the National 5 Mathematics course – somewhat under the radar – as though the two are necessarily taught together. Increasingly students are being signed up for the Apps course not realising that it is a separate qualification requiring additional class time and additional preparation for the additional final exams that it is assessed by. In my experience as a private tutor parents are unaware that this is a separate course and just accept that it’s part of ‘Maths’. At exam time students are already under pressure and depending on how close their exams are in the diary may be under significant time pressure to prepare for exams in a range of subjects. Adding two additional exam papers – Apps is assessed by two final exam papers, one calculator and one non-calculator – is just going to add further stress.

For some students Apps is absolutely the appropriate course choice since the skills taught in National 5 Maths may be less relevant to their future plans or the content may be beyond their ability – National 5 is significantly more challenging than Apps. However, for many students taking National 5 Mathematics, the Apps course is not particularly relevant or important and simply detracts from class time and adds more stress when preparing for the exams that are actually relevant to them. It should also be noted that there is significant cross-over between National 5 Mathematics and Apps, so students taking both will inevitably be answering questions on the same, or very similar, topics. This seems illogical but then the two courses were never designed to be taken together! The very existence of these two courses speaks to the age-old frustration of most students; ‘when am I ever going to use this?’ That is a question for another time but it does point to a need to radically update the content of Maths courses taught in high schools in Scotland. The National 5 and Higher courses are identical to when I took them 25 years ago (Nat 5 was called Standard Grade back then), yet look at how much the world has changed in that time. 

Students and parents should decide whether National 5 Mathematics, National 5 Applications of Mathematics, or both is right for them. But they should realise it is their choice and this increasingly ‘standard’ practice of enrolling students in both is bizarre and underhand, and clearly weighted in the schools favour since many more students will produce high grades in the Apps course than in full National 5 Maths.