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Judgment time for the SQA

Neil MacGowan is only one of many in the Higher Still hot seat. But as the implementation co-ordinator at the Scottish Qualifications Authority his workload will arguably decide teachers' attitudes to theirs - and their co-operation with the entire project.

Mr MacGowan's team has had to pull out all the stops for what he describes as the most heavily supported schools reform of all time. But teachers and lecturers, already critical of the late appearance of this support, are more interested to see the quality rather than the width.

This week another milestone is reached as more material is dispatched from the SQA's national assessment bank to support internal assessment of the Higher Still units. The back-up for classical studies, classics, computing, graphic communication, technological studies and Gaelic virtually completes what the authority terms phase one of its assessment support programme - material for subjects in which there is an existing Higher grade.

But plans exist to come unstuck, as Mr MacGowan has learnt. Music and physical education were to have been in this week's batch. But they have been delayed for a couple of weeks because of the inclusion of music tapes and the complexities of the performance unit in PE which will form part of a package stretching from Access level to Advanced Higher.

When the English material is ready in October - held up by the previous Education Minister's decision to cut down on the assessment workload - phase one will have processed 33 courses and 120 national assessment bank (NAB) packs, adding up to 9 million sheets of A4 paper. This instalment will also include specifications and packs for the Scottish Group Awards.

Such was the pressure on the SQA's Govan warehouse, and so pressed were its Dalkeith offices in handling this year's exam results, that some of the NAB material had to be stored in a Dalkeith bowling alley.

And there are still three stages of NAB support to come. Phase 2 will cover new Higher courses which do not exist at the moment, such as care and media studies, and packs for Intermediate 1 and 2 internal assessment. These are due in November, amounting to 114 courses and 566 NAB packs.

A third phase involves Access 2 and 3 material, due to appear next April along with 25 stand-alone units for the five key core skills which range from Access to Higher level and are mandatory for Scottish Group Awards. This stage represents 45 courses, or "clusters", and 195 packs.

The Advanced Higher, introduced in schools from August 2000, will complete the NAB programme next June, covering 42 courses and 200 packs. Mr MacGowan calculates that the four phases will have produced 1,081 assessment packs for 234 courses.

"There has never been the level of support for internal assessment as there will be for Higher Still," Mr MacGowan says. "There was some attempt to provide it when the National Certificate modules were introduced in the mid-80s but nothing on this scale."

The SQA, while sidestepping the political delicacies, insists that the material is not late. "The time-scale is in line with what we intended and is on target," Mr MacGowan says. The authority, keen to dispel any notion that it is not paying attention to what schools or colleges think or need, has lined up specialist staff to act as enquiry officers.

The SQA is clearly treading a narrow line between assessment support and overload. So schools and colleges are being asked to "place their orders" for Access, Intermediate and Advanced Higher units and courses. Assessment packs and course arrangements documents will start going on to CD-Rom from November, allowing schools to print off only what they require. Documents can also be downloaded from the SQA website.

"This is a service schools have never had in the past," Mr MacGowan says,"and it is also cheaper for us." The alternative would have been to generate 77 million sheets of paper for the internal assessment packs alone. As it is, the SQA's printing bill for NAB material will total Pounds 1.1 million - and that assumes schools will not ask for everything.

Schools and colleges are just beginning to digest the results of all this industry. Physics and drama teachers were the only staff to receive assessment support material before schools broke up for the summer. The only feedback has come from one drama teacher - and she is very pleased, according to Mr MacGowan.

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