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Brave new world

Brave new world

The school year is already under way, yet the dust has barely settled on the introduction of the new National 4 and 5 qualifications last year. Anne*, an Edinburgh mother whose daughter took the new exams, says the experience was fraught. “Firstly, it took ages for the course work to be released/published so we had months of thumb twiddling and awkward parents’ evenings with teachers simply not knowing what to tell us. Then the work started, and because they’d been doing nothing for months, there was serious catching up to do. There were assessments in every single lesson for some subjects, constant assessments in all subjects,” she says. Some study guides were published after the exams, and both teachers and pupils were “living in fear” of failure in the final exams, she says. “Some of the teachers simply couldn’t handle the stress. One ran out of a class crying and was then signed off for the next three or four months,” Anne says, adding: “I feel while she passed all her Nat 5s, and did well, she didn’t actually learn as much as she would have if they had had fewer assessments.”
Education Secretary Michael Russell told the Scottish Learning Festival: “Teachers had to work exceptionally hard, some have felt imposed upon, and I’m sorry if some felt that way. But I think we’ve come through it with a feeling that together we have overcome the difficulties and learnt from them.”
A working group, set up by Russell and led by Education Scotland to reflect on the new qualifications, found: “It is clear in the past year there has been a significant and unsustainable level of over-assessment in many parts of the system.” The qualifications were a success overall, the report said, but pressures on teachers and the level of operation and verification procedures had resulted in “a higher level of assessment than was necessary or desirable.”
Like Anne’s daughter, results from the new exams were good. Janet Brown, the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s chief executive, said: “There has clearly been a tremendous amount of work put in by candidates across Scotland and their commitment has been rewarded.”
The Education Scotland report advised the SQA to provide clearer and more accessible advice to teachers. According to the teachers’ union EIS’ general secretary, Larry Flanagan, the SQA had an opportunity to counter the political pressure to rush the “hell for leather” timetable, but declined. “The SQA was very clear it could deliver the qualifications within the timescale. By and large, it has done, but the point we said throughout was there’s a difference between the SQA making the product available and schools actually having the time to figure out how to deliver it,” he says.
Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was designed for deeper learning with fewer assessments, and its architects are understandably frustrated at the lack of progress. George MacBride, a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education, was a member of the 2003 Curriculum Review Group. “We underestimated seriously the degree to which the teaching profession had become acculturated to a prescriptive teaching approach,” he told a seminar this month, “A large number of teachers were probably not touched by the engagement process other than seeing a large number of documents heading in their direction.”
The blanket introduction of the new exams in one year has not allowed time for cultural change, says Flanagan. The senior phase of the CfE is meant to start in fourth year and give greater opportunities for talented youngsters to step up to Highers earlier while maintaining a breadth across the curriculum. Many schools are still locked into the mindset of the old exam timetable, argues Flanagan. “What hasn’t really taken off yet is at the end of S3, each child is supposed to get a pupil profile, which is supposed to be the basis upon which you decide your senior phase. So if you’re at CfE level four, which is the top one, then you’re a Higher candidate. If you’re at CfE level three, you’ll say your next step is National 5. Now because a lot of schools didn’t do S3 in the Curriculum for Excellence way, even if on paper they were doing it, what they were doing was a two years ‘Standard Grade’ course.”
As well as many schools treating the new exams as a Standard Grade equivalent, says Flanagan, they also were so fearful of failures for the ‘vanguard’ generation, they presented more pupils than necessary for the National 4 qualification, which is internally assessed. This was true of Anne’s daughter, who found the experience demotivating. “During exam leave, she had to go in to finish off Nat 4 assessments. There was also a feeling that Nat 4s were worthless because of the internal assessment and pupils leaving school without having sat any exams, although it seemed the Nat 4s were just as over-assessed and challenging,” she says.
Change takes time, says Flanagan, but schools have already moved on to the new Highers without time to consolidate and look at teacher workloads. The atmosphere is better though, according to Flanagan, because schools and individual departments were allowed to decide whether to move to the new exam or not. “By and large, most schools in most subjects are going ahead, but there are significant exceptions in areas like modern studies, very few schools are doing the new Higher, and computing science, biology, physics. But by actually allowing schools to make the decision some of the heat has been taken out of the situation. You get a bit more buy-in from the schools about them going ahead,” he says.
Name changed by request

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