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Set us free from the SQA strait-jacket

Radical decisions are needed to protect this session's candidates from another exams fiasco, says Fred Forrester.

CONCERN about this year's exam results will have to be superseded quickly by consideration of what changes should be made in the Higher Still programme for the new school session. While The TES Scotland is right to argue in an editorial that "changes are not born of impetuous, angry reaction", the fact remains that early policy decisions are required to avoid a repeat fiasco at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

If we were dealing only with an administrative failure, then we could concentrate on issuing new and accurate certificates to this year's candidates and leave it to the proposed independent inquiry to apportion blame. But the situation is at least partly down to wrong decisions taken in the 1990s on the back of political and educational correctness, combined with undue optimism about the ability of the system to adapt to radical change.

John Howie's proposed twin-track of the Scottish Baccalaureate (Scotbac) and the Scottish Certificate (Scotcert) was set aside in favour of the single track but very complex Higher Still programme. The Scottish educational establishment was seduced by the idea of extending the comprehensive principle to age 18 through providing a common curricular and certification framework covering the upper secondary school and the further education college.

We found the principle so attractive that we were prepared to accept what turned out in the end to be an administrative nightmare. Schools had to break down coherent session-long courses into 40-hour units, each internally assessed; and further education colleges had to prepare students for external examinations for the first time for many decades.

What was lacking, in retrospect, was an epistemological (to use a word beloved of the Munn and Dunning reports) review of the assessment needs of each course. There was no educational reason why Higher English should be assessed in the same way as a course in hairdressing (to give only two examples). The reason for the common assessment framework was administrative rather than educational.

Or, to the extent that educational considerations entered into the matter, these were to do with the general advantages of credit accumulation arrangements and the need for "ladders and bridges", linking different types of courses. In the event, only a small minority of students seem likely to use the ladders and bridges, while the great majority derive little advantage from the new system.

So how can we retrieve the situation in the shortest possible time with the least further disruption and the least effects on the young people already in the system?

The amalgamation of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council is a fait accompli and must be lived with, but the amalgamated body may administer moe than one framework. Access and Intermediate levels have been generally welcomed and have promoted the inclusion of important parts of the student cohort. Vocational courses of the type formerly certificated by Scotvec should continue to be provided within an integrated system.

However, each new Higher course should be re-examined and a decision should be taken on what elements of internal assessment, if any, are educationally appropriate. Some will clearly remain, since they already existed in the old Higher course or are already present in the corresponding Standard grade course.

But the strait-jacket of three internally assessed units should be abandoned. If a course can be satisfactorily assessed on the basis of one external examination diet, then so be it. The workload implications of any element of internal assessment should be rigorously confronted.

As for the so far untried Advanced Higher, it should continue to be developed as the answer to the "two-term dash", provided that the implications of this for the duration of university degree courses are clearly and honestly addressed. Alternatively, the shifting of Standard grade into S2-S3 (so far mainly a North Lanarkshire idea) should be reconsidered. There is no longer a compelling requirement for a leaving certificate at the end of S4. Some of these ideas may be developed over the course of this school session, but the need for a change in the new Higher assessment arrangements should have top priority.

As for the attempt to certify core skills, this should be recognised as a failure and abandoned. Any good educational course will incidentally develop core skills, but the attempt to assess and certify them wastes the time of educators and administrators.

What would we be giving up by going along these lines? Only the seductive and typically Scottish illusion that the l6-18 cohort, in all its diversity, can be shoehorned into a single certification system. The comprehensive principle must have its limits and age 16, still the minimum leaving age, is as sensible a ceiling as any.

Beyond that age, young people will follow different routes, according to their ability and aspirations. Some will take wrong decisions. In such cases, the duty of the system is to provide routes back into the mainstream. Such routes have existed at least since the 1950s.

We should learn the lesson that equality of opportunity or of esteem is not advanced by administrative arrangements that do not meet the test of practicability. In the last resort, pragmatism is every bit as important as educational theory. Above all, let the SQA ensure that the educational needs of both main sectors, schools and further education, are met in ways that are appropriate to each sector and through mechanisms which are deliverable and reliable.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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