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Facing the hurdle of Standard grade

Standard grade stands like Beechers Brook across the full width of the secondary education system, from which there is no easy escape. But do we really need a universal, externally-assessed exam at fourth year?

For those who listened carefully to what I had to say when I was education minister, it will come as little surprise to learn that I share the conclusion of the recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that Standard grade should go. This is a major decision, and it was always going to be necessary to get the things that would support such a step in place first - A Curriculum for Excellence, Skills for Work courses and real movement on the proper recognition of wider achievement.

Many will stand up for Standard grade, and it is important not to confuse the good learning in many Standard grade courses with the need for the exam itself. Some will argue Standard grade is an important rehearsal for Higher; young people leaving at 16 need proof of their attainment, and a two-year course of learning is good. None of these arguments is trivial: the question is whether they outweigh the others?

For me, secondary schooling is fragmented and rigid: the first two years finishing off 5-14, two years for Standard grade and then the dash to Highers. The unhealthy obsession with exam results means a huge collective effort on getting good results in S4. We teach what we are about to examine, not examine what we believe it right to teach.

I enthusiastically backed A Curriculum for Excellence because, among other things, it held out the hope of a genuine 3-18 curriculum, with a focus on clear outcomes. That approach demands change and greater flexibility than Standard grade permits.

Any system with a focus on exams will, to some extent, narrow learning and increase coaching to get students through the exam. To meet pressure, huge effort is expended and a lot of opportunities lost - for wider learning experiences; for more student-driven and personalised learning; for beneficial pause, reflection and depth; for sports, music and the arts; for vocational learning; for acquiring the skills to learn.

With Intermediate, the new vocational qualifications and (I hope) greater recognition for a wider range of learning and experience, the place of Standard grade becomes much less clear. Young people and some local authorities are already voting with their feet and abandoning it.

Many young people will testify to the gap between Standard grade and Higher being too wide for the former to be any real rehearsal for the latter, and I am convinced that teachers could create other means to prepare pupils for their Highers.

Now, some will immediately argue that it is vital that S4 leavers have some proof of their attainment at that level. I agree, but it should not be beyond the wit of our system to meet their needs, possibly through a leaving certificate and properly moderated internal assessment. The focus could be much more on a flexible mix of literacy and numeracy, new and enhanced vocational learning and wider experiences which will help meet the four outcomes of A Curriculum for Excellence.

So the case for keeping Standard grade is significantly outweighed by the other considerations. The OECD report argues the case far more eloquently than I, but reaches the same conclusion. In commissioning the study, this was one outcome I didn't anticipate. But it is another area in which the report can give a real stimulus to the reform I believe is needed.

- Next week: setting schools free

Peter Peacock the former education minister, in the third of his series on the state of Scottish education.

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