All exams should be on the level

4th January 2008 at 00:00
The word on the streets has it that the Scottish Government is about to review SCQF levels 4 and 5. About time, too. Rumour also has it that the review will concentrate on Standard grades and Intermediate levels 1 and 2.

The immediate cautionary note is that if Standard grades are to be reviewed, Access 3 also has to come into the frame, since nominally at least it is a level 3 qualification, equivalent to Standard grade Foundation.

The primary aim of any qualifications should be to maintain a system in schools which provides certification for all, an acknowledgment of the efforts made and skills achieved by pupils at all intellectual and practical levels.

Second, we should aim to help progression up the levels. As long as pupils have the appropriate ability, interest and motivation they should be able to move reasonably quickly up the qualifications ladder.

Third, we should provide a system which assesses on a consistent basis and where external agencies (employers and further and higher education institutions) can reasonably assume that, say, an Intermediate 2 in one subject is broadly equivalent to an Intermediate 2 in another.

It is certainly anomalous that we have two quite distinct sets of qualifications at the same level. If the aim is to simplify, that should be welcomed. But there are some significant problems in the present system.

In maths, for example, Access 3 is an inordinately relevant course for many pupils who would struggle with Standard grade, even at Foundation. On the one hand, those who have completed Intermediate 2 maths find progress to Higher difficult, while Standard grade at Credit is seen as a much better preparation for Higher maths.

On the other hand, pupils who have gained a Foundation award in Standard grade English frequently find progress to Intermediate 1 impossible and even Access 3 English challenging.

There are several reasons for this. Standard grade English, especially at Foundation, may have become far too simple a course, demanding lower levels of skill and knowledge than other Standard grades at Foundation.

A further issue is that of the relevant value of different forms of National Qualifications. Highly regarded and innovative, Skills for Work courses at Intermediate 1 and 2 are awarded purely on the basis of coursework. If we are serious about encouraging a more vocationally oriented curriculum, then vocational and "academic" qualifications should be assessed on a broadly similar basis, with perhaps a progressively and consistently greater degree of reliance on external examination as pupils move up the NQ ladder.

Finally, it will be essential for any review to go beyond the examination and assessment structures themselves and raise at least some questions as to what is taught and assessed. A system which permits pupils who use the greengrocer's apostrophe to gain an A in Higher English is inherently weak and flawed.

Alex Wood is headteacher of the Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh.

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