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20th December 2002 at 00:00
Prelims are here again, but parent Alexis Scott wonders whether the two-exam system is the best solution for harassed pupils or for schools

t's prelims time again. If parents and students are feeling harassed, how much worse is it for the teachers? My Standard grade student son pointed out that, in common with other students in his year, he has to take General and Credit papers in every exam apart from maths. The school booklet confirms this is indeed the "normal" case. The one (puzzling) exception is for maths.

I do appreciate that, because one exam is sat after the other, it is administratively awkward to have students leaving and entering the room at different times. Heads and teachers have probably spent countless hours arranging these exams so that "normally" students sit two papers. It would doubtless be an administrative nightmare to change things to suit the complainers.

I am not convinced. Too much "education" as it is revolves around sitting examinations.

While it is necessary for students to get good grades to carry on with their education (who gets a good job these days at 16?), it is doubly unfortunate that, in schools throughout Scotland, students are having to sit through exams which do not remotely challenge their capabilities.

As regards the administrative issue, criticisms have been made of hospital management in the recent past where administrative convenience was prioritised over patient needs. Are our schools prioritising administrative convenience over the educational needs of their students?

A glance through past papers in a range of subjects at Standard grade level illustrates that General level students are not expected to write their answers in essay form (sometimes neither are Credit students), as though low levels of literacy are anticipated. Presumably this is the argument for separating the papers into different levels.

Anyone who has ever worked in a dead-end job (unskilled factory work, supermarket assistant, low- grade office work) knows that it is far more stressful than work which is challenging, if difficult. Exams are always stressful, even for those of us who eventually learned to enjoy them - (my own "parental assistance" strategy includes stressing the potentially enjoyable aspect - showing what you know).

Taking exams which are far too easy is not only stressful, it is counter-productive: it induces students not to take exams seriously and to lose faith in the system. It is bad enough to have to go through the rigmarole of double exams at prelims but the students have to do it all again at the "real thing" next May. At least the teachers will be breathing a sigh of relief (they don't have to mark them).

Another downside of sitting two papers may not be that more revision is necessary but students can end up sitting two exams, one after the other, with only a five or 10- minute gap, for up to three hours. While it may be common for A-level or university students to sit for three hours in an exam without a break, such a long period seems unduly arduous for Standard grade students who (at least in the state sector) have little or no experience of the rigour of examinations before their prelims.

Apart from maths, there does appear to be an exception to the "two exam" rule. The booklet at my son's school states that "some students may be advised to sit a subject at Foundation level only".

This is fair enough where a young person has learning difficulties and, with increasing numbers of local authorities including those children and young people within mainstream education, then perhaps it is inevitable. However, I have this terrible sneaking suspicion (no doubt gained from gazing too long at league tables and reading depressing reports about low expectations) that it may not always be only young people with learning difficulties who are denied the opportunity to sit Standard grade at even General level.

We may focus too much on exams at the expense of essay writing, for example (which develops other skills, such as reasoned argument and analysis), but we still need them. Ironically, it is those from poor backgrounds who need them most.

To do away with Standard grades altogether may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater but perhaps they need an overhaul or at least their administration requires a more flexible approach.

But then I'm only a parent. We could start by asking the students themselves what they think. Or don't we trust them to think?

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