Don't forget the pluses

Dennis Gunning

Last summer's fiasco at the SQA should not be allowed to overshadow the need for a unified qualifications system, says Dennis Gunning

MY old school motto at Ayr Academy, Respice, Prospice (Look back, look forward), seems an appropriate theme for some personal reflection on the last few years of my life with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and, before that, the Scottish Vocational Education Council.

Looking back, all the questions about the origins of Higher Still and last summer's mess come to mind. I remain convinced that most of the fundamental principles adopted in Higher Still were right, even if their implementation was less than trouble-free.

The focus on levels as a ladder of progression and on core skills (the latter sadly distorted in implementation) and the use of predetermined and publicly available statements of standards (aka outcomes and performance criteria) were right. The adoption of a modular approach to curriculum design was right - although more on that later.

The use of an integrative assessment (in Higher Still's case, an external assessment) as the glue binding modules into coherent groups was right. The drive for a single qualifications system was right - the so-called academic-vocational divide was always an artificial concept.

I have only two small observations to make on last summer. The first is that it has been a thoroughly depressing experience for SQA staff to be working their proverbial socks off to deliver a quality service to candidates and to be constantly undermined by lurid stories in the press. Such stories must have severely undermined candidates and caused them stress at the very time they needed support. Is a cheap headline really worth that?

The second is that the Scottish Parliament committees, in their attempt to ensure democratic accountability in their enquiries, sought evidence almost exclusively from the "headline" figures who had come and gone. The staff who worked with the details of the system as it failed, and who had to pick up the pieces, would have given the evidence a harder edge and a different perspective.

My final Respice is about the rest of the SQA's qualifications system - everything apart from National Courses. It is understandable that the Highers carry huge political and social clout - to the point of challenging ministerial futures. But a single qualifications authority is not a sustainable entity if it cannot devote the attention, the development time and the resources to all its candidates, centres and qualifications.

Which brings me to my first Prospice. The SQA's customers include as many people in college, in training organisations and in workplaces as are drawn from the senior secondary school. So, having recovered some reputation this summer, the SQA must have the space and time to turn its attention to its other qualifications and candidates if the concept of a universal qualifications framework is to survive.

And what of a National Courses Prospice? I would suggest a few thoughts on the future there. The first would be to ensure, in the current review, that we don't lose the benefits of the new National Qualifications while dealing with the problems. For example, progression routes really are working. Nearly 4,000 successful candidates this year at Intermediate 2 or Higher used a pass at the level below last year as their springboard. Higher Still made that sort of planned progression, which was always available for the most able, possible for many more learners.

The second would be to separate out the concepts of modular curriculum, modular assessment and modular certification. The current insistence that all three go together ignores the very different needs and environments of the range of learners involved. Units should remain as the basis for the curriculum design of National Courses - but should be removed as mandatory assessments and as hurdles towards success in the whole course. Optional assessment and certification meets the needs of those taking a formal, stepping-stone route to a National Course, or who want credit for partial success. Optional assessment and certification also allow those who are following a tightly time-bound and highly structured learning programme to bypass units if they wish.

Respice, Prospice over, I head off to Melbourne. What are the issues there for the new Victorian Qualifications Authority? Reform needed to senior school qualifications to take account of the greater diversity of students; a need for greater recognition for vocational qualifications; lack of clear progression routes.

Cue Higher Still 2 - the sequel? Perhaps not.

Dennis Gunning was director of development at the Scottish Qualifications Authority until last month and is now head of the Victorian Qualifications Authority in Australia.

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Dennis Gunning

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