Battle of the ballots begins

The battle to win hearts and minds over Higher Still stepped up a gear this week as members of the Educational Institute of Scotland began balloting on a boycott. The union has sent more than 10,000 leaflets to parents via school boards and parent-teacher associations to explain its move.

This steals a march on the Education Minister's plans which are thought to include a high-profile photo-opportunity at a supermarket, focusing attention on the appearance of Scottish Office publicity leaflets targeted at parents.

Meanwhile Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, has given detailed assurances to teachers and lecturers who claim the new assessment regime could add to workload and lower standards. Mr Tuck has often been described as the architect of Higher Still, dating from his time as an HM chief inspector when he acted as an adviser to the Howie committee.

At meetings with the SQA, the teaching unions have expressed concern that teachers will have to develop their own materials for internally assessed Higher Still units (the 40-hour building blocks of every new course), that assessment procedures would be bureaucratic and that the unit assessments would add to the load of preparing pupils for their prelims.

In his letter to a wide range of school and college groups, Mr Tuck tries to assuage these fears and points out that support for unit assessments will be available from the SQA's national bank.

Unit assessments would not lead to a fragmented approach, he says. It is not obligatory for teachers and lecturers marking the tests to comb through every performance criteria, although the criteria are used in designing the tests. Students will gain the award of the unit if they achieve all their learning outcomes which means "achieving a mark at or above the cutting score set by the SQA for the test."

Mr Tuck also tried to clear up misunderstandings about the prelims, the dummy run for the real exams usually conducted within schools in December and January. He suggests prelims can still be taken, either in January by combining the first two unit assessments or in March by running all three units together.

"In either case, there would be a prolonged period of time when there would be no summative assessment and the emphasis would be on teaching. Pressures for reassessment would be deferred and prelims created in this way would provide a very sound basis for appeals." The SQA intends to issue advice on the design of prelims.

Mr Tuck brushed aside fears that internal assessment would lower standards as teachers came under pressure to improve pass rates. He also repeated earlier guidance that students should be allowed to retake a unit no more than twice.

The SQA is ultimately responsible for standards, the chief executive declared, not teachers. The unit assessments are being developed by the authority to "rigorous national standards" and this should be pointed out to pupils and their parents."There would be no point in adopting a lenient approach to unit assessment, as the student would then be unlikely to pass the course assessment," Mr Tuck states.

"Moreover, where unit assessments are consistently out of line with course assessment, the (school or college) will be externally moderated and required to apply the appropriate standards." Pupils and parents would therefore gain no advantage if they try to pressure teachers.

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