Don't join an S grade stampede

The search for flexibility should not tempt schools to abandon one of the genuine success stories of Scottish education, says John Hodgart.

IT would seem that quite a noisy bandwagon is building up in favour of replacing Standard grades by National Qualifications in S3-S4 and it rather looks as if many schools or departments may be in danger of jumping or being shoved aboard without being clear about where they are all going or what tune they want to play or should be playing.

The gospel revealed in Implementation Studies - Planning for Flexibility in S3-S4 certainly seems to have inspired a new zeal for burning Standard grades and replacing them with NQs. While welcoming the debate about greater flexibility and alternatives, we need to adopt a degree of scepticism about some of the assumptions made in this document - especially its inbuilt prejudices about Standard grade's shortcomings.

How many teachers were consulted to back up the claim that there is a "fairly general feeling that Standard grade is in need of update or replacement" and where is the evidence for this? The report shoots itself in the foot when it admits quite unshamefacedly that its own implementation studies were neither extensive nor complete.

Greater flexibility in S3-S4 would obviously offer a number of more appropriate options for certain pupils who cannot cope with full-two year Standard grade courses. Used in this way, shorter courses or even units could then complement Standard grade without any major upheaval. Few would disagree with this option. However, it would be unwise to consider wholesale replacement.

The principles and practices on which Standard grade was developed, of balance, breadth and progression should not be set aside so readily. It is in fact one of the success stories in Scottish education, in marked contrast to the 5-14 monster and the shambles of Higher Still, both pushed through without adequate consultation.

Standard grade probably offers far more of a reward for the work done over the whole range of the course. In English, 66 per cent of assessment is based on coursework, giving far more credit for classwork than NQs can offer. Ironically Standard grade is criticised in the Planning for Flexibility document for only giving many pupils of lower ability a "course completed", but this is surely only really the case with a very small number, especially in English.

Again I can only speak for my own subject, but in my experience the vast majority of pupils develop their skills at a suitable pace over two years to allow just about everyone to achieve what they are capable of by the end of S4. It is simply not the case that many lower ability pupils fail to achieve something from Standard grade and, if they do not, it is unlikely that they would achieve more at this stage with any other course.

While our ablest pupils could no doubt cope with NQ courses, we surely must ask if the majority are mature enough to cope with the sort of demands made of them, even by some Intermediate 1 or 2 subjects, never mind Higher, especially in terms of linguistic, literary, emotional or experiential maturity.

Finally, just how much public credibility or confidence will be given to courses, never mind parts of courses, based entirely or mainly on internal assessment? In this as in many other respects, the merits of NQ courses have yet to be tried and tested. Maybe it would simplify the whole assessment process to scrap Standard grade, but maybe the cynics are right after all: it's mainly about saving money, not about the needs of the majority of our children.

John Hodgart is principal teacher of English at Garnock Academy.

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