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Exams reform takes a gap year

After Diet 2001's successful delivery, schools can rule out radical changes this session, reports David Henderson

THE heavy toll of internal assessment on pupils and teachers will drive significant changes to Higher Still - but not this coming session.

Schools and colleges can expect only further tinkering with the handling of data and refinements to the recruitment and training of markers while detailed consultation with the profession takes place on simplifying what is widely accepted as an over-complex post-16 system.

After the Scottish Qualifications Authority appears to have achieved what many thought unlikely and delivered results on time and largely accurately, the focus is switching rapidly to what reform is likely to be in place for courses next year.

Jack McConnell, the Education Minister underlined his determination earlier this week to improve and simplify a system he believes is back on track. Mr McConnell labelled the proposed Educational Institute of Scotland boycott of internal assessment in Higher Still courses as "completely unnecessary".

He said: "We are absolutely committed to reducing the burden of internal assessment not because we are solely concerned about the over-work involved in some of the courses - although that is a genuine concern - but because pupils and parents have said to us that the system has become burdensome and detracts from the learning that is meant to underpin the Highers and the National Qualifications."

Colin MacLean, the minister's exams czar, is writing to schools to outline the Executive's thinking.

Members of the ministerial early warning group that has been monitoring this year's exams underlined their concerns after a meeting in Glasgow on Monday.

Judith Sischy, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, picking up on the recent evidence from the Scottish Parent Teacher Council about exam overload, said: "We are pressing for a review of assessment. There has to be less internal assessment, particularly for the group doing four or five Highers, and we are looking for more consistency across subjects. Someone has to put themselves in the place of the pupil."

Mrs Sischy added: "Teachers are impatient to see improvements and do not want to wait three years for significant change."

George Haggarty, head of St John's High, Dundee, and spokesman for the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said the burden on SQA co-ordinators in school could not be sustained, but added: "We do not want sudden change to the balance between internal and external assessment, although we want the system very much simplified."

He did not support any move to leave out internal assessment since many pupils achieved notable success in unit passes. However, many headteachers remain critical of the dominance of the exam culture. "The broader educational issues are being lost site of," Mr Haggarty said.

Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, said that while this year's exams had been very successful, changes were inevitable. "We cannot sustain this for another year at the level of financial commitment from the Scottish Executive, SQA, schools and authorities," Mr O'Neill stressed.

It would be up to the National Qualifications Steering Group to simplify subjects such as English, the arts, music and physical education where there were problems. "Ministers are committed to doing something quickly to alleviate the burdens," he said Tom Kelly, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, believes change can come within the current Higher Still design. "People have been playing safe and over-assessing. You do not have to do an assessment for every learning outcome. Schools have gone on doing prelims and unit assessments to gather evidence for appeals," Mr Kelly said.

Problem subjects such as English and communication had to be sorted but there were many other subjects such as mathematics which had settled into Higher Still very well, Mr Kelly stressed.

Leader, page 12

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