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Change of course faces first big test

A few weeks ago the Beath High fourth years sat the National Qualifications English exams for the first time. As they filed into the assembly hall, our hearts were in our mouths. They were sitting one level, not two, and had no safety net, no 50 per cent weighting for their folio or a talk grade in the bag.

It is possible some pupils achieve no award if they did badly on the day. We could appeal of course; they would be credited with the four outcomes passed in class. Meanwhile, we wait for the results.

Two years ago the English department decided to replace Standard grades with National Qualifications courses. Despite good results, with large numbers of S4 pupils achieving Credit passes and most achieving grades 1-3, we believed Standard grade did not prepare pupils well enough to cope with Higher English and Intermediate 2 courses in S5.

So much time in S4 was spent redrafting folio pieces, while pupils struggled to write a technically accurate first draft in an examination. In S3, pupil motivation could be problematical. Talk grades helped to inflate results but the hours spent on oral work did not help to prepare for the talkless zone of S5.

A common profile among our Standard grade pupils was Reading 2, Writing 3, Talking 2. Most of those with an overall grade 2 wanted to do Higher English for university entrance, but the Writing 3 caused problems. After a miserable year of confidence-sapping resits, some would scrape a C Higher but many didn't.

Happily, there was an alternative. Intermediate could replace Standard grade. Integrated courses for S3-S6 were an attractive proposition and would mean two systems of assessment instead of three and talk grades and folio redrafting would end.

We went ahead with the National Qualifications course in 2002-03.

In the first year of our Intermediate experiment we enrolled all third years for SQA courses at Access 3, Intermediate 1 or Intermediate 2 levels, which corresponded with former Foundation, General and Credit. The big change was that pupils were now entered for one level, not two. For motivation, we wanted them to receive unit awards at the end of the session as they would not sit course exams until the end of S4.

When you have pupils in S3, S4 S5 and S6 all doing Intermediate 1 and 2, things can become fraught. This year we didn't enrol pupils at all. Our S3 course now consists of practising skills and preparing techniques for close reading, writing, textual analysis, critical essay and special study. This is done in the time honoured way: reading texts, discussing, taking notes, planning, writing, being assessed.

In some ways, little has changed. There has been no need to order new novels, plays and poetry books. But there is a much clearer focus about what we are teaching. We now work more along the lines of performance criteria: understanding, analysis, evaluation and expression.

Late April and May is the third years' assessment period. Using national assessment banks, pupils attempt the learning outcomes at a level appropriate to their ability. The results are used for school reports and decisions on National Qualifications course enrolment levels for the start of S4. There are no resits in S3: they pass or fail and by how much tells us how they are doing. Levels can still be changed during S4. The S3 pupils are certainly more focused than hitherto.

In S4, learning outcomes are staggered. Writing assessment comes in late October as it is usually the easiest to pass and gives pupils confidence.

In early December a preliminary exam for Intermediate 1 and 2 pupils comprises a close reading NAB test that doubles as the second outcome and a critical essay. The process comes to a head in January with the special study outcome. We also have enough evidence for S4 reports and changes to presentation levels.

Textual analysis is tackled in February, resits in March and then past papers and exam techniques in April.

So, is it working? We will know more in August. But my colleagues think the pupils are better prepared and learning more in S3 and S4 than with Standard grade.

I believe it will be a further three years before we can judge accurately.

My hope is that having written a special study on, say, two Scots poems from the Kist in S3 at Intermediate 1, a pupil will then find it easier to write a special study in Intermediate 2 in S4 on, say, "The Cone Gatherers" and by S5 and Higher, why, the works of Shakespeare.

Willie Hershaw

Willie Hershaw is principal teacher of English at Beath High, Fife

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