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Is level F the missing link with Standard grade?

The head of the Inspectorate regards it as "unfinished business" but teachers exhausted with Nativity plays and parties would have been happy to leave it unfinished for some time yet. The Government was evidently determined not to let another few days go by without adding the coping to 5-14, and so distributed its level F documents along with the Christmas mail.

Some pupils have overtaken level 5 in primary 7, others do so in S1 or S2. There was clearly something needed to keep them challenged, and the report under the last government about underachieving able pupils pointed up the problem. The new set of consultation documents is complementary to the recent S1-S2 report from the Inspectorate, and teachers would do well to consider them together.

Each subject paper is careful to emphasise that it is looking for progression beyond the existing guidelines rather than imposing new demands. "Few new strands have been introduced, and only after careful consideration," it states. Teachers have long recognised the need to stretch abler pupils, and the emphasis in the subject papers on asking them to work independently and explore more deeply for themselves will be as familiar in secondary as in primary schools.

No one will want another batch of papers to read, but the need for a level F is well known and a focus for work teachers already offer is overdue. Those in secondary whose charges have largely reached level E on arrival and who have therefore paid little attention to the 5-14 programme will find they need to revisit it.

The Inspectorate regards level F as a last rivet in an imposing structure that reaches to Advanced Higher from foundations in level A. Natural progression has been established for abler pupils from 5-14 to Standard grade. The claim is true up to a point, but the new consultation documents are obliged to state that "level F is not intended as a pre-entry requirement for Standard grade". In primary and early secondary, pupils have the challenge of passing through six levels. They do not tackle a higher level before mastering its predecessor.

There is no similar progression from the end of 5-14 to Standard grade since some pupils will embark on S3 and S4 courses from level E, others will not have reached that and a minority will cross from level F to Credit level Standard grade. In others words, there is still a terminus but, hopefully, one that is now better linked to an integrated transport system.

As the HMI report Achieving Success in S1S2 pointed out, a major obstacle to steady progress remains - the switch from one primary teacher to a troupe of secondary specialists. And, at the end of S2, pupils must choose subjects to fit the 20-year-old notion of modes of learning, which do not sit comfortably with 5-14.

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