The timescale for implementing the Scottish Government's proposed national qualification reforms by 2012 is "challenging", Janet Brown, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, admits. But she is upbeat about the plans, believing the structure will respond to the curriculum reforms and bring "sparkle and excitement" to children's learning.
Dr Brown says any new qualification replacing Standard grade and Intermediate awards should be seen as a "progression point", not an "exit point" from school, taking young people on to more education, employment or vocational training. And consultation should determine how the external assessment of the new general qualification, proposed by Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, is done, either by exam or moderation of internal coursework.
She notes there are "pluses and minuses" in many of the proposals, but says the SQA's emphasis would be on "maintaining standards".
Like most commentators, Dr Brown welcomes the simplification of qualifications at the upper end of secondary school. Tom Bryce, of Strathclyde University's education faculty, points out it has been "long overdue", but he does not think it will be easy to find a "workable compromise" between Standard grade and Intermediate.
"A far greater challenge is reconciling Assessment is for Learning with whatever is to be the new national qualifications framework," Professor Bryce says. "While AiFL has been spreading slowly but steadily, it doesn't sit easily with the grading process of summative assessment. In fact, the two are mutually contradictory.
"In the course of this consultation, therefore, we have to make up our minds about the serious encouragement of good formative assessment, as against the apparently systemic benefits to the country of controlled summative assessment."
There is unequivocal support for the abolition of Standard grade from Alex Wood, head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He suggests their original purpose - certification for all - has been achieved. "National qualifications create, in most subjects, a more coherent progression route and are readily available."
He is supported by Sean McPartlin, depute head of St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, who says that, because of the different approach to examining Intermediate 2 and Higher, "you have to spend valuable time in S5 retraining kids in exam techniques and approaches; with a straight-through course, you only need to do that once at the start of the course".
It is time for Standard grade to go, "now that all schools seem to have increasing numbers of reluctant and academically challenged pupils who struggle with even Foundation level," says Marj Adams, teacher of religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy. "More needs to be done to develop courses that focus on practical skills with a direct link to the workplace."
Neal McGowan, head of Larbert High (above), feels it is "simplistic" to get rid of Standard grade. He would prefer to see it made "fit for purpose" and an integral component of A Curriculum for Excellence.
The positive aspects of Standard grade, such as assessing talk in English, should not be lost, says Brian Boyd, of Strathclyde University's education faculty. He is also concerned that consultation over the reforms has been pre-empted by decisions already taken, such as the abolition of Standard grade and preservation of the Higher as it is.
"The Highers at present do not examine the range of skills, knowledge and dispositions that young people need in the 21st century, the current Higher English being one example," Professor Boyd says.
But, while Standard grade is felt to be "a wholly inappropriate articulation to the new Higher", East Renfrewshire Council, the first to drop Standard grades completely, cautions against "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" by getting rid of Intermediate awards too. The authority's results show they have been a good preparation for Higher.
There is equal concern at the fate of children following the proposed "general" curriculum in S1-3. Mr Wood is "not happy" with putting course choice back to the end of S3. "What about choice, flexibility and experiential learning?" he asks.
The "demotivating effect" on pupils in the first three years of secondary, if they have to follow a general course without focusing on an exam, has emerged as a concern.
Michael O'Neill, former director of education in North Lanarkshire, is "puzzled" that S1-3 is being made a common course. "It seems ironic that, having recognised for 20 years that S1-2 has been a period of marking time and, indeed, a waste of time, we're extending that for another year," he says.
Mr McGowan warns there is a danger of moving from no exams in the first three years to "non-stop unit assessments and NABs in S4-6". He says: "Currently, in my school, we have exams in S3, nothing in S4 and exams in S5."
Brian Miller, head of Dalziel High in Motherwell, an early champion of pupils sitting exams as early as possible, is even more emphatic that allowing pupils to choose options in S1 makes them more motivated in S2 and 3.
Mr O'Neill says: "A decision seems to have been made that, come hell or high water, S1-3 will be a common course and Standard grade will go because there is too much assessment. But the issue is about the number of NABs, internal assessment and verifications, rather than the existence of an external exam."
Eric Wilkinson, professor of education at Glasgow University, suggests the new exam should be taken at the end of S3 or the first term in S4, "so that pupils get their results back by Easter of their final year, which would allow them to reassess where they are going".
The Scottish Government's proposals for the "next generation" qualifications system.
- A broad curriculum to the end of S3;
- No need for exams prior to S4;
- Recognition of achievements beyond qualifications;
- For all pupils, new Scottish Certificates in literacy and numeracy at levels 3-5 of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), to be assessed internally and externally through an exam in S4;
- At SCQF level 3, Access 3 to replace Standard grade Foundation;
- A new unit-based general qualification, possibly with an external exam, to replace Standard grade General and Credit and Intermediate 1 and 2 (SCQF levels 4 and 5), but reflecting their "best features";
- Pupils able to bypass the new general qualification and begin studying for Highers in S4 over a year; others could take 18 months or two years;
- Possible winter exam diet, which would help 18-month courses;
- Details on baccalaureate exams in sciences and languages at Higher and Advanced Higher levels to be announced later this session;
- Consultation on changes to begin in June and run to October;
- Revised qualifications to be in place from 2012-13.
For the Education Secretary's full statement on national qualification reforms, see www.tes.co.ukscotland.