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Feast or famine?

The re-introduction of winter exam diets is under scrutiny as part of a modernisation process. Elizabeth Buie finds out what's on the menu

Scotland's exams authority is sounding out teachers on whether they would like to see winter exam diets resurrected.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority is asking a cross-section of pupils, teachers and local authorities to evaluate their experiences of Standard grade and National Qualification exams. Part of the consultation involves asking teachers and senior education managers how they feel about "flexible external assessment".

Peter Peacock, the education minister, has asked the SQA to investigate "how choice and opportunities for pupils could be extended through re-introducing a winter exam diet for key National Qualification courses".

A spokesman for the authority said the question had arisen as part of the SQA's modernisation process, which would allow for more assessment on demand. Rather than a single winter diet, which the SQA piloted in 2001, schools and colleges could in future have access to multiple diets as online assessment was developed.

The original pilot was ditched early, in April 2002, after one session because of lack of interest. Only 12 out of 46 colleges submitted entries, for just 71 candidates, and only 49 schools - many from the independent sector - submitted 288 students in a limited range of subjects.

Last November, Mr Peacock floated the idea of a more flexible assessment system. He told the Headteachers' Association of Scotland's annual conference that reform of the secondary curriculum, under the umbrella of A Curriculum for Excellence, was leading the Scottish Executive and the SQA to revisit the issue.

The current consultation exercise by the SQA of Standard grades and National Qualifications is an evaluation of the revisions that have been made over the past three years. Lena Gray, business manager with the SQA's curriculum for excellence team, has written to schools: "The time is right to undertake an evaluation of the revised national courses. This is intended to establish what is working well, where there are areas for improvement, and what changes could be made to improve national courses further.

"At the same time, we will gather feedback on Standard grade courses. We will use the information to plan how to develop and enhance National Qualifications in order to meet the changing needs of learners."

The SQA consultation is being interpreted in some quarters as another nail in the coffin of Standard grades. The exam's future is being reviewed by an expert group set up by the Scottish Executive and involving SQA officials.

Earlier this year, Mr Peacock said he thought Highers and Access courses would stay as they were, but he wants to debate Intermediate and Standard grade exams.

The Minister is taking a cautious approach to the future of Standard grade.

"I'm not going to do anything rash," he told a press conference at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow last month. He draws a distinction between the worth of the courses and the merit of the exam. The executive is considering a move to just one exam for pupils when they leave school.

James McVittie, former headteacher of St Ninian's High in East Renfrewshire, is liaising with schools and education authorities in the SQA's evaluation. On the eve of his retirement, he told The TESS he did not believe there was a need for external assessment at every stage of Secondary education.

Under his leadership, St Ninian's was the first state secondary to replace Standard grade with Intermediate courses completely.

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