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Assessment watchdog for pupil stress

THERE IS no clear evidence pupils are suffering from over- assessment, the Scottish Qualifications Authority's chief executive believes. But Ron Tuck admits it is "a potential problem" which will be closely watched by a focus group that includes union representatives, headteachers and education authorities.

"There are teachers who complain about too much assessment," Mr Tuck said. "On the other hand, some teachers are reasonably positive, agreeing there is more work but saying that is probably a good thing. I am not, of course, suggesting that is true for all pupils in all subjects."

A subject-by-subject survey of EIS members in Orkney, while highly critical of Higher Still, appears to confirm this equivocal position. The union states:

"Although several subjects welcome the increased motivation arising from mandatory internal assessment, others regret the increased stress factor."

The survey, which covers just two secondary schools in Kirkwall and Stromness, suggests pupils are being internally assessed eight times per subject on average, giving a total of 40 assessments for those taking five subjects. All these must be passed before pupils can sit the final external exam.

The union adds: "Since the current fail rate in Orkney averages 26 per cent at Higher, a further 10 resits on average must be taken into accout, giving a year total of 50 assessments per pupil on average. However, for any pupil struggling in several subjects, the number of assessments could rise to 60 or 70." This is bound to be at the expense of teaching, the survey says.

Members of the SQA's assessment group say there is no hard evidence yet of Higher Still's impact on pupils. "There is only anecdotal evidence," George Sturrock, depute head at Menzieshill High in Dundee, said. The picture would only become clear once the programme was fully in place. He agreed timing of the first assessment is one of "a raft of issues" beginning to emerge.

James Thewliss, head of Harris Academy in Dundee, said it was inevitable any new initiative would create concern about assessment overload. His school has developed a wall-planner in an attempt to spread assessment as evenly as possible throughout the year. "There is generally no problem with the first unit assessment," Mr Thewliss says. "It's where you have to reassess that you run into difficulty."

David Cameron, education manager in Fife, says initial feedback from pupils is that assessment of the first units has meant more demanding work much earlier in the session, so there is less time to adjust to the new courses. The authority is pursuing this and other issues in a Higher Still survey across all subjects.

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