Changes to Higher exams and courses ‘go further than they had to’

Revised question papers criticised after Tes Scotland analysis shows almost every subject will have longer or new exams

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Wide-ranging changes to Scotland’s flagship Higher qualifications have prompted angry responses from teachers, unions and academics.

Critics are also concerned that the full range of support materials will not be available until the autumn, several months after students have started the courses.

While there is an acceptance that something had to replace unit assessments, which education secretary John Swinney decided to scrap in 2016, critics say what is planned goes too far and is not in keeping with curricular reform designed to stop Scottish education pivoting around high-stakes exams.

Tes Scotland analysis of recently published changes to Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) Higher courses for 2018-19 shows that, out of 40 subjects, 31 will have longer exams, while five practical subjects will have an exam where none existed before: care; childcare and development; dance; fashion and textile technology; and photography.

However, full details of all the changes to the courses – which students typically begin several weeks before the summer holidays – will not be known until the end of September.

Education secretary John Swinney decided to scrap unit assessments – starting with National 5 this school year and ending with Advanced Higher in 2019-20 – amid union protests that they added to teachers’ workload by duplicating swathes of coursework. In February 2017, however, there was widespread concern about the emergence of many longer exams and brand-new exams at National 5.

Now, teachers have criticised the changes to Highers. On Twitter, one teacher joked that, with the environmental science exam now lasting 3 hours 15 minutes – plus a break – pupils who require extra time will “need to be given their tea by the invigilators”.

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, said “longer exams are certainly not in the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)” and that exams “militate against the kind of disadvantaged student [the government] keeps saying it wants to support”.

University of Glasgow assessment expert Professor Louise Hayward said the SQA’s options were limited by a “very tight timescale”, but added that “in the longer term, it will be important to look at the examination system as a whole” in light of recent changes, and “to reflect on its relationship with the aspirations of CfE”.

Gone too far

EIS teaching union general secretary Larry Flanagan said that removing unit assessments was “the right thing to do”, as there had been “an unsustainable assessment burden for students and staff”.

However, he added: “There is a feeling that the SQA has gone further than it had to with the changes – but as [Swinney’s] qualifications review group didn’t meet for over eight months, there was no forum to challenge that.”

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that it was “totally unacceptable for the SQA to withhold details until September”, and that the changes should be delayed beyond 2018-19.

An SQA spokesman said the removal of unit assessments meant that “we need to strengthen course assessments to protect the integrity, credibility, breadth and standards of national courses”, but insisted that the changes “adhere to the core principles of CfE”.

The changes have been “carefully thought through and consist of a mixture of approaches”, with longer exam papers determined by the “specific assessment needs of each subject”, and some exams split into two to allow a break.

The spokesman added: “For the vast majority of Higher subjects, exams will remain one part of a mix of assessment that will continue to include the coursework that candidates tell us they particularly value.”

SQA published the document summarising changes – which it says have been influenced by teachers’ reaction to the National 5 changes last year – after “dialogue with teachers and the relevant professional associations”.

The spokesman said course-specification documents will be published by the end of April; updated support materials, including specimen exams and coursework, will be published between May and September. The spokesman added that the removal of units and unit assessments was welcomed by teaching unions and the timelines set by the Scottish government.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “These changes to the national qualifications will free teachers to teach. Teachers will not have to undertake formal unit assessments at three points during the year – a task they told us was significantly contributing to their workload, and a move welcomed by teaching unions when it was announced.”

This is an extract of an article published in 16 February edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes Scotland magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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