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Higher test still for exam system

As pupils prepare to sit certificate exams next week, Raymond Ross goes to St John's High in Dundee and speaks to other schools to find out how Higher Still has progressed since last year and how the new Advanced Higher is working

St John's High school in Dundee has now implemented 80 per cent of its Higher Still courses. Rector George Haggarty believes the new courses cater for a wider range of students, will encourage more of them to stay on at school and that the unit assessments aid motivation and achievement.

That said, he voices some concerns. "Some young people are motivated by targets and assessment but we are facing assessment overload. Once we get beyond the Scottish Qualifications Authority crisis I think we will have to become more flexible. Last year the timetable for staff meant there was not enough time to teach pupils beyond what the unit assessments demanded, to stretch them.

"Target setting, if we continue with it, will be much more complex because we have so many more models which are indicators of success. Higher Still is forcing us to move away from narrow target setting."

He also says: "Pressure has increased on pupils and teachers. This can lead to success or just to more pressure. Teachers have little fallow time with the exams coming later and the new timetable starting in June. There's a level of benefit from rigour and pressure but it can go too far."

Connection between different levels is also causing problems.

"We built very carefully towards Higher Still but some levels in some subjects don't articulate as well as they should," he says.

"A young person with a General 4 in Standard grade is less able to go into Intermediate 2 in English or maths than in other subjects. And it is being argued that Intermediate 2 in history, for example, would be a better introduction at S3S4 to Higher history than the Standard grade.

"I think this perception is quite widespread and it maybe raises the question: are Standard grades showing their shelf-life now?" Sixth-year pupils at St John's who have experience of last year's courses also feel that unit assessments and exams didn't always dovetail the way they should. With maths in particular, they argue that the assessments were too easy and didn't prepare them for the exam. The exam was "a bit of a shock" and they felt that their exam performance suffered as a result.

"It's also too much to fit in unit assessments, practicals and prelims, and the unit assessments often come at the same time," says pupil Finola Smith, echoing comments made by St John's pupils last year. This year she has had to hand in three dissertations for Advanced Highers - totalling 15,000 words - all in the same week, she says.

Head girl Rachel Branney summed up the pupils' reactions to Higher Still as a whole: "The system doesn't test your skill. It tests your time management."

Rebecca Rodepierre, principal teacher of guidance, agrees that assessments and their timing need to be looked at but adds that pupils now have a much better sense of their own level of achievement over a year.

"They ask for help earlier because they can see where they need to improve," she says. "Previously, they would have waited until after the prelim exams and that could be too late. Unit assessments are good in this respect.

"Also, from the parents' point of view, they are getting regular reporting on their child's progress because of unit assessments. We track students' progress closely. Each has a log sheet and a monitoring form which is filled in in October and DecemberJanuary.

"The form is filled in by subject teachers but it is the pupils' responsibility to get it filled in. Pupils are therefore more in control and are taking more responsibility for their education.

"Not only does this keep parents in touch, it also aids early intervention."

The administration involved in unit assessments and in tracking individual profiles and reporting is "easier second time around but still burdensome," says Mrs Rodepierre.

Overall, she believes Higher Still works for the majority of pupils. "I'm pleased there are fewer pupils ending up with nothing," she says.

Teresa Little, principal teacher of physical education at St John's, agrees. Her department is the only one in Dundee, and one of the few in Scotland, to have implemented Advanced Higher.

"We've always had pupils who wanted to do more than the Higher but Sixth Year Studies didn't attract them. This year we have seven doing the Advanced Higher, which is a real boost to the department."

But, just as Higher Still had its teething problems last year, so has Advanced Higher this year.

"When I started in August we had only course outlines and we were very much in the dark. I was constantly on the telephone to the Higher Still Development Unit to ask them for national assessment banks and to see a model dissertation. The dissertation is two-thirds of the assessment, but the model didn't come through until March."

The pupils thoroughly enjoy the in-depth study of their own activity, says Mrs Little. "It's their best activity and they concentrate on how they can improve their performance."

The study and evaluation approach also stretches school resources. For example, three pupils are taking golf, which involves collaboration with the Scottish National Golf Centre at Drumoig. "They are the experts and they analyse the pupils' technique. We use their facilities at a very reduced rate."

The PE department also uses library facilities at Dundee and Abertay universities as well as their testing equipment for fitness and performance.

"I feel the Advanced Higher can become too classroom-based. The pupils would rather be performing more. I think we need a better balance between the theoretical and the practical," she says.

While performance counts only for 30 per cent at Advanced Higher, at Higher itself it is 50 per cent of the grade.

"This is our second year doing Higher Still and it's a better course than the old Higher," says Mrs Little.

"Prior to it we had pupils who couldn't cope with the academic side of PE. With Intermediate 1 and 2, pupils can now play to their strengths.

"Fewer are dropping out to do modules because Intermediate courses can cater for those who couldn't manage the theoretical side of it and the work commitment. We can now cater for any pupil in PE.

"Higher Still has been for the better. The workload for pupils and staff may be much greater but pupils are better prepared for the exam now that they are getting used to unit assessments. It helps us make sure we are covering the course work and preparing them for the exam. I think we are all pushing harder as a result."

The more encompassing nature of Higher Still is one that appeals to the ethos of St John's High, says Mr Haggarty.

"We are about education, not certification. Education is what pupils experience. It is a lot more than the sum of the classrooms. If we get our delivery right we should be of service to the whole person."

Torry Academy, Aberdeen

James Curran

Principal teacher, Chemistry

"My bugbear is articulation. In chemistry, Standard grade to Higher is OK but Intermediate 2 to Higher is a mess. I don't know why stage two modules were removed. They were an excellent bridge between Standard grade (S4) and Higher (S6).

"Intermediate 2 is too like Standard grade. General (bands 3 and 4) kids feel that they've done it all before. It's going to be a problem for anyone who wants to progress.

"Having moved here this year from Kirkwall Grammar in Orkney, I'm struck by the stark contrast between numbers. With 19-20 Higher pupils before, it was cumbersome trying to get them all through the unit assessment hoops at the same time. With only two Higher pupils this year, and probably seven next, it's much easier and you can give pupils more individual attention.

"In general I've no complaint about timing or pressure. Both here and in Orkney I've never found any difficulty in finishing courses a few weeks before the pupils go on study leave. The timing is fine for covering course content and in neither school have I noticed too much pressure on either staff or pupils.

"I'd like to implement access courses in place of Standard grade in S3 because I've found that for those pupils it was more attractive, their passes improved as did their self-worth."

Portobello High, Edinburgh

Charlie Evitt

Principal teacher, English

"Young people are achieving certificates in S5 who probably wouldn't have in the past when many regarded Scotvec modules as not having much currency. A lot more are staying on and a lot more are doing English.

"Things are more straightforward in our second year but I'm receiving quite a few panic calls from colleagues who are doing Higher Still for the first time.

"Internal assessments are more straightforward this time round but the timescale is still difficult and the elasticity which it was alleged we would have has been chopped. You have to keep to cut-off points. When you're dealing with 150 candidates, they can't go on resitting internal assessments.

"The heavy management load for English with its volume of internal and external assessments has been added to, for me, by a plethora of paperwork over fall-back certificates. This is where, if the candidate didn't get an award at Higher, they could get a retrospective C pass at Intermediate 2. This has now been changed to an A pass.

"I think schools will now be under more pressure to let kids do Highers who are not good enough because they know they might get a fall-back Intermediate 2 certificate.

"I have an Intermediate 2 class and would be very surprised if any get an A this year. But if they had been presented for Higher and achieved around 45 per cent they'd get the A. There will be a lot of parental pressure to get pupils with band 3 Standard grades into Higher classes when they should have achieved a 1 or a 2."St Maurice's High, North Lanarkshire

Christine Pacione

Principal teacher, Geography

"We're doing two Higher courses and two new courses, the Advanced Higher geography and travel and tourism at Intermediate 1.

"Regarding the Highers, there's still too much assessment and sometimes you feel as if you're teaching pupils to pass assessment rather than teaching them the subject. You have to be meticulous in recording all marks as you assess, otherwise you get bogged down.

"The Higher class - that's 38 pupils - have sat 13 assessments this year, not including resits. That's a significant workload in terms of marking and recording. They don't have to sit every one, but it's good exam preparation and good for revision.

"Last year we got an unheard of 25 A passes and I believe the pupils sitting all the assessments helped greatly.

"This is one reason we started the Advanced Higher this year with six pupils. But we've been very much on our own. Eighty per cent of the Advanced Higher grading comes from school work, but the only models for essays and the local area study the pupils have to do were in draft form and not really much use. We've managed to do the course without all the materials.

"The new travel and tourism is proving very popular. Even students who are above Intermediate level are attracted to it. It's a useful course, especially for anyone interested in a career in that area and it's quite demanding, especially for pupils coming from Foundation, as it involves six assessments with 18 items including report writing."St Thomas Aquinas, Glasgow

Ann Marie Sutherland

Principal teacher, Mathematics

"Higher Still is proving a good way forward and pupils are more motivated at Intermediate 1 and 2 than they were with the old modules because they see it as part of the same exam structure as Highers. They value the certificates because they have more kudos.

"The unit tests for Higher, as any teacher knows, are at level C or below, so you have to tell the pupils constantly that the exam standard is much higher, but it also means that pupils who can't pass Higher will achieve something. They're more suited to intermediate levels but Higher pupils can't bypass them.

"We're doing the new Advanced Higher, which is proving a very heavy workload for both pupils and teachers, which necessitates twilight classes.

"The Higher Still Development Unit provided us with excellent alternative materials at the start of the year because the Advanced Higher books weren't published on time - the fault of the publishers, not the HSDU.

"The workload is much the same as last year and I must say HSDU materials are very good. We actually use some of them in Standard grade classes, as Intermediate 1 and 2 parallels to General and Credit. It would be perfectly possible to use them to teach Standard grade."

St David's High, Midlothian

Philip Thorne

Teacher, Music

"The internal assessment in Higher Still has been cut back and that's a huge help when you're presenting around 60 candidates. However, the sheer time involved in the external assessment of every music performance is a big disruption still. I think sample moderation would be a better option.

"The pupils are voting positively with their feet for Higher Still. Next year we will have five classes (about 80 pupils), which is practically unheard of. It shows Higher Still is meeting pupils' needs.

"This success has implications in terms of articulation and accommodation. We need to start thinking about using Higher Still units in S3 and S4 because it's a better preparation. Standard grade was for the 1980s.

"With four classes in three rooms, we have to use evenings and lunch times. It's practically impossible to have 20 pupils in one room all composing, playing and recording on different instruments at the one time. A rock band in one corner and a mini-orchestra in the other, so to speak, makes for cacophony not harmony!

"The new Advanced Higher has five candidates ongoing (with another two doing some units). The composition, performance and technology (mini-sequencing, recording and sound engineering) aspects have all proved popular for Advanced Higher.

"Last year all our students got the grades we expected. We had one outstanding appeal which came through (upheld) only last week! That was pretty traumatic for the student."

2 SQA exams

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