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Higher system must try harder still

The recent problems resulting from the Scottish Qualifications Authority's failure to publish accurate examination results for more than 16,000 students this summer, and its failure to deliver results to schools and certificates to candidates, have brought into question not only the integrity of the SQA, but also the value of the whole Higher Still programme.

It is still too early to say how the SQA can restore its hugely damaged reputation, but it is not too early to examine whether the Higher Still programme is delivering the goods.

Most teachers applauded many of the principles which underpinned the programme as outlined in "Opportunity for All", published in 1994 in response to the report of Professor John Howie's committee on post-16 education, even though many felt that the concept of devising a common examination system for the entire range of academic abilities was deeply flawed. But how well has the programme achieved its aims? Frank Gerstenberg gives his verdict

"All students should achieve the highest standards of which they are capable. There should be clear, relevant and demanding benchmarks of achievement for the most able at all the secondary stages."

One of the achievements of the Higher Still programme has undoubtedly been the provision of realistic but demanding courses for the less able students. But have the most able been challenged? Hardly, I think.

Unit assessments require only that a student passes: in all but one or two subjects there are no grades above pass level. And the reaction of the brightest students has not so far been encouraging. Perhaps the Advanced Higher will eventually provide that challenge, but so far that examination's credibility has yet to be tested. This year's debacle will have done nothing to help.

Grade so far: narrow fail.

"Students should attain reasonable standards in a broad range of subjects."

Since the number of hours for each course has been increased by 40 to 160 hours, many schools have decided to reduce the number of Highers courses taken by their most able students. Also, there has been little or no incentive for them to combine arts courses with sciences, nor has there been any encouragement to take a modern language at Higher level. Indeed, it looks as if the take-up of languages has declined significantly as a result of the Higher Still programme.

Verdict: no award.

"There should be more even steps between stages."

This meant that the two-term dash to Highers would disappear, so that there would be a more even gradient from Standard grade to Higher and Advanced Higher.

Some more time has indeed been added to the courses, with the result that the examinations this year were taken two weeks later - which was one of the several reasons for the problems with this year's results. But the increased number of assessments - currently under review - has taken up a huge amount of students', not to mention teachers', time.

Moreover, this year some of the assessments early in the session required a maturity from students which one could not reasonably expect so early in the session.

Grade: again, a narrow fail.

"The new system should be easily understood by students, parents, employers and higher education institutions."

Really? I have not yet met an employer who understands the system and admissions tutors south of the border who do so are still pretty thin on the ground. And what will they think about next year's applicants?

Verdict: another no award.

"Students should demonstrate proficiency in 'core skills'."

Neither pupils nor parents seem very convinced by core skills, but at the end of the day their importance will rise or fall on whether employers are impressed. So far, allthey seem to want to know is what a student's Higher results are. Nor have many teachers been impressed by the way it has been decided how to validate core skills. But it would be unfair to be too harsh at this stage.

Grade: narrow C pass.

"There should be opportunities for all students to gain recognised 'marketable' qualifications reflecting achievements."

It is perhaps too early to say whether certificates issued in 2000 will be "marketable".

Verdict: before August 10 I was going to award a C pass, but I think this has to be a narrow fail, subject, perhaps, to appeal.

"Students should have access to a wider range of courses of a 'vocational' nature as well as 'academic' subjects (which) should enjoy equal status."

This represents both the major strength and major weakness of Higher Still. A wider range of courses has certainly materialised, but have "vocational" and "academic" courses achieved equal status? I doubt it, but I am in a generous mood.

Award: C grade pass.

"The new arrangements should build on recent reforms in Scottish education."

It would be difficult to argue that the Higher Still programme has not done just that, though it has been more successful in some areas than others. The modular structure for Highers, for example, does not build on Standard grade structures, and the passfail assessments are also unfamiliar to new entrants to S5.

Verdict: ungracious to award less than a B.

"The new arrangements should bring the variety of courses offered at present into a unified curriculum and assessment system."

Taken at face value, it would be impossible not to award an A. But one has to ask at this stage whether a unified assessment system was a laudable aim. The teaching profession is divided on this issue.

Verdict: I will stick to awarding an A for achievement, though personally I think this aim was the basic fault in the entire programme.

"The introduction of Advanced Higher courses should enable higher education institutions to refine further their admissions policies to the needs, aspirations and abilities of particular students."

It may be a touch harsh to pass judgement before a single Advanced Higher has been taken. But there is as yet no evidence that the Advanced Higher will be any more successful than the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies. I hope it will, but it will require far more commitment from higher education institutions and from the Scottish Executive.

Grade: another narrow fail.

Remarks The chaos resulting from the publication (or non-publication) of examination results has thrown into doubt the reputation not just of the SQA, but of the entire Scottish education system. Higher Still has not had a distinguished debut - one A, one B, two Cs, four narrow fails and two no awards. Hardly enough to gain entry to a high tariff course (especially when the A was in a course that the candidate should not have sat). But at this stage it would be completely wrong to throw the whole thing out.

What needs to happen now is, first of all, for the Education Minister and the Inspectorate to listen to the genuine concerns of the teachers who are teaching the courses, and not pretend that they know better, and that next year it will be all right on the night.

Secondly, they should reconstruct the SQA from top to bottom, ensuring that one culture prevails rather than the two cultures of the old Scottish Examination Board (SEB) and Scottish Vocational Education Council (SCOTVEC), where the clash between the cultures has clearly contributed to the present chaos. Only then can the reputation of Scottish education begin to be restored.

Frank Gerstenberg is headteacher of George Watson's College, Edinburgh

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