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EIS on the brink over Higher Still

CHANGES to Higher Still courses agreed this week, including the introduction of the "default pass" mechanism next session, may not be enough to head off a boycott of internal assessment by Educational Institute of Scotland members meeting in Perth today (Friday).

In what is likely to be a finely balanced debate, delegates to the union's annual conference will face calls to end "summative internal assessment". Union leaders, however, will argue that they are well on the way to its removal for the majority of school students.

Any agreement to ballot on a boycott would automatically increase pressure on Jack McConnell, Education Minister, to launch a further consultation on the principles behind the new national qualifications, something he appears keen to do.

The National Qualifications Steering Group, which met for five hours on Tuesday, reviewed the first full year of Higher Still and agreed a package of reforms designed to slim down and improve assessment but tentative Scottish Executive plans to drop external testing for some students failed to surface.

A key reform is acceptance of the default pass system, initially proposed by Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, and Judith Gillespie, development manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. Bill Morton, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, was heavily criticised for resisting its implementation this session but admitted he was not opposed to it at a later date.

Under the system, schools and colleges will only pass on information if students have failed, deferred or withdrawn from units.

Issues around recruitment of markers for the burgeonin number of external assessments appear to have been shelved, pending the trial of three-year rolling contracts for markers and increased fees. A fallback option which would be more radical in the longer term is "local centralised marking", involving every experienced teacher. Staff would be hauled in to mark papers during the school day and immediately after the relevant exam.

The Scottish Executive points out that 38 per cent of secondary teachers are needed to mark papers this year. Some 9,420 markers have been recruited. The time involved in teacher release is estimated at 100,000 days, equivalent to 500 full-time equivalent teachers and lecturers.

Its review of Higher Still, based on evidence from the inspectorate and surveys by the EIS and System Three, supports the argument that many teachers last year misjudged the standards required for the new courses. Teachers are said to have a better understanding if they are regular markers or part of examining teams.

The review points out that the bulk of appeals, backed by centres and parents, failed because work was well below the required standard. Exemplars at each level or band, better feedback on "concordancy" and appeals and more staff development are likely to help implement the strategy.

The steering group also agreed to reduce the number of assessments needed to satisfy course demands. Work around National Assessment Bank (NAB) tests will go ahead quickly. In their first year of use, there was "widespread misunderstanding" about the aims and purposes of NABs - whether they could be used to support appeals and offered genuine exam practice - the Executive states.

Leader, page 24

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