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And the answer is: 'it's a mess'

Over the summer, several people have written about A Curriculum for Excellence; some critical, some very positive. But, because ACfE is a multi-faceted development with a lot of different, related but separate elements, it is possible to be positive and negative without being contradictory.

It is hard for anyone to be critical of the desire for better, more interactive and challenging teaching, or for a modernisation of content. However, when we move to the balance between skills and knowledge or to the new exam structure, we get into less certain territory. I share the concerns of the parent who wrote lamenting the lack of knowledge and how this will short-change her child in the future. Skill without knowledge to back it up is no more than bluff and posturing.

But it is when we move to the new exam structure that we really hit the rocks. What the programme board has done, in its infinite wisdom, and contrary to many people's expectations, is streamline the exam system by removing Intermediate courses and leaving Standard grades, albeit renamed as "nationals". In the process, they have recreated all the inherent problems that led to the Higher Still development of the nineties.

Once again, we have two levels of qualification which will be taught, to quote the Government, through "bi-level delivery of units at different levels" where the pupil's final qualification will be determined by the assessment that they take and achieve. So the big question is, as with the pre-Higher Still days: what does the pupil who gets the lower level 4 qualification and is not yet ready to move on to Higher do, when he or she has sat through the next level 5 course? The answer is the same now as it was before Higher Still: it will be up to schools to develop the necessary courses.

Under the assessment system developed by the programme board, youngsters will get a National 5 out of this bi-level course if they are successful in an external assessment, but will get a level 4 if they only do an internal assessment. When asked to explain the reasoning for this difference, the Government is schizophrenic in its response. It offers the concept of assessment progression through levels 4, 5, and 6. It states that the internal-assessment-only approach of level 4 is in line with the assessment approaches 3-15 and "will ease transition into qualifications for young people". The external assessment at National 5 is said to provide "a useful experience for young people and adult learners in preparing them for examinations at level 6 (Higher)".

The implication is that youngsters will march through these levels in successive years. There is no mention that some will be able to jump straight into Higher from the assessment regime of 3-15 without the "help" of the transition approach of level 4 or the external assessment "practice" of level 5. That this is possible and intended reveals that the rationale for assessment progression is phoney.

Another worrying aspect of assessment is revealed in response to the question why units will not be graded. Apparently, "teachers can adapt assessment in ways that suit learner's (sic) choices and interests and so increase personalisation, the relevance of assessment and learner motivation". That sounds remarkably like "choose assessments that pupils can pass", like the 5-14 programme used to be.

Finally, how many courses can a student fit in? Again, a cop out: "The number and range of qualifications undertaken will be a matter for schools, education authorities, colleges, parents and young people to decide".

Ask any hard question on ACfE and you get told that "it will be for schools to decide". It is hands-off government, similar to what the concordat with local authorities has delivered. It's a mess.

Judith Gillespie retires soon as development manager with the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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