The devil is in the detail

Secondary heads want a working group to oversee the exams revolution
24th October 2008, 1:00am


The devil is in the detail

Pupils will be forced to sit exams in literacy and numeracy in P7 if secondary heads get their way. It would be the first national test at the end of primary schooling since the 11-plus was swept away.

The heads want a mandatory external exam in addition to the Scottish Government's similar tests proposed for S3 or S4, because "a significant number" of pupils find it difficult to cope with the secondary curriculum due to weaknesses in these skills.

Having no external moderation of teacher judgment about a pupil's progress until S3 is too long to wait, according to School Leaders Scotland. This is underlined by the finding in the report on Scottish schools by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that an attainment gap starts to open up from P5.

SLS is so concerned about the Government's far-reaching plans to revamp exams after S3 that it wants a working group set up to oversee this "generational change" in assessment. It is also recommending that ministers delay the introduction of replacement exams by a year, until 2013-14.

Although it recognises that the Scottish Qualifications Authority has improved its efficiency in recent years, it expresses concern that the "SQA might struggle to be ready for the first diet in 2012-13, and no one wants to replicate the chaos of 2000".

Broadly, the secondary heads support the comprehensive principles of A Curriculum for Excellence, and recognise the need to streamline and update the current parallel systems of Standard grade and Intermediate exams. But they are highly critical on the detail.

There is also a suggestion that the Government has put the cart before the horse in its approach to exam reform and curriculum development. Specifically, with the curriculum outcomes up to level 4 (the S3 stage) still being redrafted, and no outcomes yet available for the "senior phase" of ACfE covering S4-6, SLS says it is difficult to "second-guess" what might be in the upper-secondary exams.

A particular concern for SLS is that the Government's proposals would limit the number of exams in S4 to five, making it difficult for pupils to change direction in S5 and S6. "We are concerned that minority subjects will be squeezed out of the curriculum at a time when funding may already be forcing schools to make hard decisions about the viability of subjects," it warns.

The association also urges the Government to reconsider its blanket ban on early presentation for exams in S3, saying that not only is there no evidence to support such a move, but that it is "antithetical" to personalisation and choice which are the key principles behind the new curriculum.

At a practical level, heads call for models of potential S4-6 timetables, saying there is "real apprehension among experienced timetablers, who are the people who will have to translate paper arrangements into practice, that the proposals will lead to unsustainable demands on the system and, in fact, a narrowing of options in S4-6."

Headteachers also pour cold water on Government hopes that its assessment plans will encourage brighter pupils to bypass exams in S4, giving them two years to study for Highers. They remain unconvinced that parents and schools will be willing to bypass level 4 examinations in S4, so the two- term dash to Higher in S5 will remain.

One way of avoiding the "two-term dash" to Higher, SLS suggests, is to create a model based on two 18-month courses. Work on the first course would begin in S3, with the exam in December of S4, to be followed by the second course, examinable in May of S5.

In a bid to marry the separate advantages of Standard grade's two papers (simultaneously an opportunity for success and safety-net for failure), and Intermediate's unit-based structure, SLS offers an alternative exam format. It suggests that pupils sit a single exam whose questions become progressively more difficult, with cut-off scores to cover two levels, rather than a pass at A to C.

There should also be a mechanism to give a pupil credit for completing a course if they have passed the units but not sat the external exam.

SLS rejects the idea of grading unit assessments, saying this would lead to demands for multiple resits, workload problems and delays in setting the assessments until later in the year. The result could be an exam overload and burnout for pupils.

The proposal to allow pupils to sit Highers and Advanced Highers over 12, 18 or 24 months is similarly rejected, mainly on logistical grounds. Few schools would be prepared to release teachers to act as principal examiners and markers on a more frequent basis, additional exam diets would impact on the use of assembly halls and it would be difficult to timetable.

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