All that glitters is not gold

29th August 2008 at 01:00
I have argued several times on these pages that the debate on A Curriculum for Excellence would only get real in the secondary sector when we started to talk in detail about exams, who sits them and when. The time for debate has come and I suggest there are two questions which need to be considered.

The first question is: do we really need all the exams which are proposed for the next generation of Scottish qualifications? According to the recent consultation document on National Qualifications, there are going to be lots of them and some will be considered more valuable than others. The language could not be clearer: "Highers, in particular, will be the gold standard of the Scottish education system" and "the most able pupils will be encouraged to bypass lower-level qualifications and to study Highers from S4 onwards."

The term "gold standard" is questionable on several counts. Any history teacher will tell you that the original gold standard didn't work, so it was abandoned. Try going to the bank and asking for a piece of gold in exchange for your pound. The note is just paper and has no innate value, but it is accepted by traders because it is backed by the Government even though it doesn't have gold reserves to redeem all the notes in circulation.

There are some eerie comparisons with paper qualifications. Higher certificates have no innate value in themselves, nor are they necessarily backed by brain reserves. Highers are not very reliable in measuring people's lifelong potential or the range of abilities they have. They don't tell you much about what kind of a brain anyone has, how big it is or how well they can use it. But they are accepted by parents and employers, because they are backed by the Government.

But do governments really have confidence in the Highers? Current proposals suggest that they have worries about their "gold standard". It seems it does not even guarantee that you are literate or numerate - you'll need another bit of paper to prove that. Also, the Higher "pounds" don't necessarily have enough status for S6, so let's keep "advanced pounds" and issue a "super-pound" called the "baccalaureate" at some point in the future.

The second question is when students should sit exams. Building the Curriculum 3 confirmed that students would be expected to follow a broad common curriculum in the first three years of secondary, and will not be presented for national examinations until S4.

That this is the most radical proposal of all for secondaries in ACfE was neatly illustrated by a recent lead article in this paper, "Early birds catch the worm" (August 8). It reported that two secondary schools had produced "stunning" results by presenting pupils a year early. The heads pointed out that the strategy had been particularly effective for middle and lower-ability pupils. They were worried about keeping these students motivated for three years without them being able to have some choice over what they learn and, crucially, having examinations to work towards.

I fully understand why these schools and others have been presenting students early for national examinations. Given the huge emphasis on success in secondary schools, it is hardly surprising many teachers fear that, if students are not working towards an examination, they will be unable to motivate them.

I accept that this is a challenge. But releasing students and teachers from the pressures of national examinations in the first three years of secondary presents us with an opportunity to stop simply teaching to exams and to promote more active, more real-life, meaningful and "joyned up" learning. Even more importantly (to adapt Burns) it gives us a chance to help students realise that "the grade is but the guinea's stamp, the learning's the gowd for a' that".

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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