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Have they dealt us a second busted flush?

Exam chiefs are risking the credibility of the awards system by ditching the 'default position' on unit assessment for Higher Still, says Fred Forrester.

In deciding to reject the so-called "default position" on Higher Still internal assessment, the Scottish Qualifications Authority has taken a gamble of mind-blowing proportions. If there is another meltdown, there will be another rolling of heads, including those of Bill Morton, the authority's chief executive, and John Ward, its interim chairman. More important, there will be a loss of faith in the SQA and its awards which could lead to many schools looking for certification elsewhere, probably south of the border.

Only a short time ago, the default position (schools advising the SQA only of failures in unit assessments) apparently had consensus support. Teacher unions, parent organisations and Education Minister Jack McConnell all seemed to be signed up for it. What went wrong? Official explanations that "improvements in internal assessment would involve an element of risk" and that "further significant changes might jeopardise the successful delivery of next summer's exams" are unconvincing.

The reality is that those within the educational establishment committed in principle to Higher Still - an important but embattled group - began to see the default position as a substantial watering-down that would lead to further waterings-down. They decided to take a stand, at some risk to themselves but at greater risk to the future of the SQA.

FE colleges have recognised that the Higher Still mix of internally assessed units and externally assessed courses gives them increased prestige and more clout than they had under Scotvec. Another part of the lobby consists of secondary teachers who are strongly committed to comprehensive education as we now understand it and who see a watering-down of Higher Still as part of a move to more setting by ability and more specialism in the upper secondary school.

It is worth recalling that, even before last summer's meltdown, the SQA was exploring the idea of identifying courses most likely to be offered, respectively, in secondary schools and in further education and setting up different assessment models for the different groups of courses. The then chief executive, Ron Tuck, and his colleagues seemed not to be averse to moves in this direction, but the collapse of last summer brought the discussion to a prmature conclusion.

Whatever happens with this year's examinations, there must be a proper debate about whether it is educationally sound to bring all l6-18 courses within a single assessment template. In all the discussions during the Higher Still development period no such debate took place. Somehow, after we had rejected the Howie report's proposed twin-track approach, we seemed to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Well, the discussion will have to take place and it will be wider than would have been likely in the 1990s. The proposed reform of comprehensive secondary education in England will have some overspill into Scotland. And Professor John Howie has come out of retirement to join the fray. In a newspaper article he argued that the proposals in England are not right but that Scotland does not have it right either.

He said that comprehensive schools were established for pupils up to the minimum leaving age. Originally, their upper years were mainly academic. However, the growth of voluntary staying-on transformed education at 16-18 without altering the structure (secondary schools and further education colleges). Howie suggested that, in urban areas, secondary education should end at 15 (not 16), with education at 15-18 taking place in colleges "of more or less specialised kinds". There would be a "fresh start" at 15-plus, Standard grade would be abolished and a three-year preparation period for certification would finally put paid to the two-term dash.

This is radical stuff and John Howie must know such a solution would not be easily accepted or quickly implemented. On the other hand, last year's collapse should be the occasion of wider debate on what we are seeking to achieve in the upper secondary and FE. Think of the richness of provision which could be available in each of our cities and in other urban areas - arts colleges, science colleges, modern languages colleges, industrial colleges, commercial colleges, music, dance and sports schools. Each would have links to higher education. Many other countries have this kind of choice at upper secondary level. We must ask ourselves why Scotland alone is thirled to uniformity.

When will the opportunity come for more radical consideration? In Jack McConnell's promised Green Paper? We must hope so, for the issues will not go away.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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