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Not enough meat

Higher English has come under the spotlight again with the education convener of Scotland's largest teaching union calling for the writing element to be beefed up, and headteachers launching an inquiry into pupils' grades not matching teachers' estimates.

Larry Flanagan, convener of the education committee of the Educational Institute of Scotland and principal teacher of English at Hillhead High in Glasgow, feels the Inter-mediate 1 and 2 and Higher English exams have too great a focus on close reading and critical reading.

The format of the exam needs to be re-examined by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, he says, as the Higher pass mark tends to hover around 45 per cent lower than many other subjects. Significantly, however, there are thousands of candidates who are "bunched" around the pass mark, so a mark one way or another can make the difference between a pass or fail in one of the most crucial exams.

"The SQA has had to drop the pass mark every year since Higher Still came in so something is not quite right if they are not reaching 50 per cent year after year," said Mr Flanagan.

He believes the narrow focus of the exam is largely to blame and argues that if there was a greater focus on writing, there would also be a better spread of marks.

Mr Flanagan's headteacher, Ken Cunningham, chaired a review of Higher English in 2001 which recommended that creative writing form 20 per cent of the exam. However, the proposal was rejected because the SQA wanted Higher English to be made up of two 90-minute papers, mirroring other exams, believes Mr Flanagan. The option of a folio element was not accepted by the exams body because of fears over plagiarism.

The Headteachers' Association of Scotland, meanwhile, is carrying out a survey of its members because of concerns over an apparent unpredictability of Higher English results.

Carole Ford, head of Kilmarnock Academy and convener of the HAS education committee, said members had reported that not only did they have pupils who were under-performing compared to departmental expectations, but they had others who were getting much better passes than predicted.

A spokesman for the SQA said the authority was content with the robustness of its marking, but would look closely at any submission made by HAS.

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