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Assessment packs: 380 tons of bumf

Support packs for Higher Still will be in schools by early September, but controversy over the exams continues. Neil Munro reports.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has started issuing its long awaited packs of assessment support materials for Higher Still - but schools will not see most of them until they return in August.

The first set of materials from the SQA's national assessment bank will support the internally-assessed units in 31 subjects for which there is an existing Higher.

Only drama and physics have been covered so far. Another nine subjects are due to receive packs next week. All Higher subjects should be covered by the first week in September - except Higher English assessment which is being revised and will not therefore receive support material until October.

The SQA will send out a total of 200,000 packs on nine million sheets of paper in this first phase. By the time the next two phases covering Access, Intermediate and Advanced Higher courses are completed in March 1999, 380 tons of paper will have been issued.

The scale of the operation began to emerge this week as the SQA heralded its imminent assumption of responsibility for Higher Still assessment.

Teachers have cited delays in providing support for schools as a major reason for their reservations over the Higher Still timetable. The Government hopes the arrival of more and more material in schools will stave off the unions' threatened boycott.

Further details were provided at the SQA's first annual conference in Glasgow on Tuesday by Neil MacGowan, head of the authority's implementation team.

Guidance on "managing assessment", issued on Tuesday by the Higher Still Development Unit, proposes that students should not retake units more than twice. Three units make up one course at each of the five Higher Still levels.

Ian McCalman, former president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said teachers were particularly concerned at the prospect of assessing pupils in units endlessly until they passed. It would affect both standards and workload.

Fred Forrester, the EIS depute general secretary, told the TES Scotland that even a limit of two re-assessments would mean a total of three assessments. He thought that was too much.

Mr MacGowan admitted that this restriction would be purely advisory. "I can envisage many schools, particularly in middle-class areas, coming under pressure from parents to ensure their children got as many opportunities to complete their units as possible."

Mr MacGowan gave an assurance that although existing Higher courses would disappear in August 1999, National Certificate modules would remain until schools were able to switch to the Access and Intermediate units and courses which will replace them. The HMI says this could take up to five years.

There is to be consultation with schools and colleges on which of the 3,000 modules should lapse from the existing National Certificate catalogue. Mr MacGowan said he expected up to 300 would disappear over time.

The SQA confirmed that the existing procedures, which generate around 40,000 exam appeals a year, will continue.

But in future when a pupil fails to gain an award at one level, he or she will be awarded the level below. For example, failure to clinch a Higher C pass will lead to a compensatory Intermediate 2 - provided all course units have been completed. And if high-flying candidates get an A pass in the Higher external exam and still lack one learning outcome to complete a unit, the SQA will not insist on full completion before confirming the award.

Mr MacGowan also revealed the Secretary of State is likely to authorise consultation on a possible second exam diet in addition to the MayJune round. This is partly to accommodate the needs of FE colleges, where external assessment is being introduced for Higher Still courses. College students require more flexibly timed assessment, so a second exam session in November and December could be on the cards.

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