The government's blanket veto on early presentation for exams in S3 is being called into question by the spectacular improvement in exam passes at two secondary schools which have been involved in a radical reorganisation of the curriculum.
A Glasgow University evaluation of Kirkcudbright Academy found its experiment of presenting all pupils at the end of S3 for Standard grades and extending the choice of academic and vocational courses across S4-6 delivered "sustained improvements in standards", a better staying-on rate and "an impressive breadth of opportunities second to none in Scotland".
The headteacher of Mallaig High, Martin Sullivan, who copied the curriculum model of Kirkcudbright, has reported an equally impressive set of exam results, particularly at S5.
Eric Wilkinson, emeritus professor of education at Glasgow University, who has led a team evaluating Kirkcudbright Academy's "curriculum flexibility project" since 2004, warned that the Government's curriculum and assessment policies "could potentially undermine" the advances made at the school.
"It would be catastrophic if the current reforms at national level required the school to abandon its integrated and flexible curriculum," he said in his final report on the project, published last week.
The project started in 2003 and saw pupils choose their subjects a year earlier than normal - at the end of S1 - and sit Standard grades in S3 rather than S4. Pupils then followed a programme combining academic subjects with life and work skills in an extended upper school of S4- 6.
Last year, 39 per cent of S6 pupils at Kirkcudbright gained five or more Highers under the new system, compared with an average of 29 per cent over the last three years of the old system. And 63 per cent of pupils had gained five or more Standard grade awards at Credit level or equivalent by the end of S4, compared with an average of 49 per cent in the last three years of the old system. The results placed them significantly ahead of comparator schools.
Dugald Forbes, head of Kirkcudbright Academy, expressed concern that the Curriculum for Excellence could spell the end of schools being able to choose when to present their pupils for assessment. "In each and every case, the right kind of assessment at the right time offers pupils the opportunity to show what they can do," he says.
"Despite convincing evidence from this and several other schools, we are now told that the end of S3 is the wrong time, but why is this if the pupils have covered the ground successfully and are ready to meet the challenge? What empirical evidence is there to tell us that S4, or indeed any other stage, is the right time?"
The Glasgow University report, however, highlighted a problem with Kirkcudbright's curricular flexibility - and one that is also likely to emerge under CfE where pupils are more likely to collect their Highers at different stages of the senior phase rather than all in one sitting in S5.
Kirkcudbright pupils applying for medicine or veterinary science at Glasgow or Edinburgh universities were likely to be refused entry as these institutions demanded five Highers from one sitting, and they were reluctant to look at Kirkcudbright's approach in a positive light. Discussions were taking place with those responsible for admissions policies to Scottish universities, said the report.
- Next week: Dugald Forbes, head of Kirkcudbright Academy, writes about the initiative