New IT course opens old wounds

An unholy row on computing between Higher Still planners and the Scottish Examination Board threatens to wreck revised curriculum plans and delay further reform in the subject indefinitely. The dispute coincides with the merger this week of the exam board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council to form the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Two new courses have been proposed to replace the current Higher in computing studies, one on computing and the other on information systems. But the exam board panel, convened by Robert Grant, principal teacher of computing at Prestwick Academy, has accused the courses of re-creating the academic-vocational divide the Higher Still reforms set out to abolish.

The computing course is said to be based on computing studies and likely to be adopted by schools, while the information systems course is geared to further education. Panel members have accused the Higher Still planners of bias towards the FE sector, a factor in the resignation of a prominent teacher member of the Higher Still computing committee. Others are considering their position.

According to the panel, the "twin-track arrangements" are "substantially to the disadvantage of teaching and learning of computing in Scotland for a wide number of reasons".

It adds: "It seems at least possible if not likely that the parallel arrangements will defeat the whole purpose of Higher Still, providing two streams which will not be held in equal esteem; one will be regarded as more vocational, the other will be regarded as more academic. The panel remains convinced that a single set of arrangements documents allowing extensive choice within a single framework would best serve the needs of computing education. " This is said to be an "overriding view".

The panel maintains the change has been rushed through "at breakneck speed", making consultation "well nigh impossible". It also complains that previous comments on earlier drafts of the courses were ignored. The panel wants the Higher Still group to scrap its proposals and start again. Some members are particularly unhappy that a promised major overhaul of computing studies has not materialised. One said computing had been "left to rot" and would be "marginalised and sidelined".

Another gripe is that constantly changing subject-matter will need "very substantial staff development in content knowledge and expertise". Staff will also need training in assessment. It may be impossible to marry the two traditions of internal and external assessment, the panel warns.

Exam board advisers argue that schools will be unable to deliver new courses without "a very substantial injection of hardware and software" and technician back-up. They go on to stress the demands on examiners, setters and markers. "It is already difficult to secure the services of appropriate staff to be principal examiners and setters. The proliferation of courses will increase this difficulty substantially. The requirement for a substantial increase in the number of markers may be difficult to meet," the panel maintains.

Edinburgh City Council, whose response was shaped by four principal teachers, supports claims about FE bias. "There must be a feeling that the courses are owned by the teachers who will be left to deliver them in the classroom, " the council states. Its fears are shared by Fife's submission.

The Higher Still development unit declined to comment.

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