Chorus of disapproval over assessment

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Let's scrap proposals for Higher Still English before chaos descends, says Tony McManus

In all the rows over Higher Still, English teachers have voiced the loudest opposition. They say its assessment framework is rigid and formulaic. What is proposed is not parity of esteem, but a self-defeating shift from education towards training, from the intellectual to the functional.

In October Lothian teachers produced a critique which has been endorsed by colleagues throughout Scotland. It concluded that the arrangements for Higher Still English and communication are unworkable.

The workload of English teachers is such that they cannot teach, assess and administer the syllabus in the secondary school properly as it stands. Higher Still proposes enormous increases in this workload.

As a framework for assessment - and a rigid and impracticable one - it will put intense pressure on pupils. Already pupils are over-assessed and under-educated, but such is the amount of assessment required by Higher Still's shift towards internal assessment, that it will mean a serious reduction in the time left to teach pupils.

Nor will it be possible to monitor assessment properly as there's not enough time. The impractical requirement to assess all elements of the course in "controlled conditions" and the option for failing pupils to repeat them until they pass, are enough to undermine the proposals. The authorities claim that the number of assessments required at Higher Still will be fewer than for the Revised Higher, but this is misleading. The two systems are not comparable - Higher Still assessments are summative, while classroom tasks in Revised Higher are formative. What's more, their figures take no account of the "reassessment" or "redrafting" facility offered by Higher Still.

The changes to the report element in the Higher English course will require pupils to compile their own source materials on a topic of their own choice, decide upon a task, then plan, draft and redraft the report in "controlled conditions". This is the equivalent of the investigation recently abandoned by the social studies curriculum because it was impractical and unwieldy, and its authenticity unassured. The authorities' response that Higher pupils will be able to complete the report in a week is met with incredulity by practising teachers.

The addition of two units of assessment in talking and listening again adds to the current workload. Assessment of these elements in the past has been accompanied by no resources and "moderated" in a manner so laughable as to have damaged their credibility as assessable elements. One of the statements is that "candidates delivering oral presentations should certainly be expected to have some knowledge of what they are talking about . . .". Candidates are to be trained to go through the motions, not educated towards an opening of mind and coherent expression of thought.

The other element that makes the Higher Still proposals impractical is resourcing, which is already seriously inadequate. With the Government committed to sustaining the previous administration's spending targets, and councils like Glasgow and Edinburgh looking for cuts of Pounds 32m and Pounds 25m from next year's budgets, the financial climate will ensure that Higher Still cannot be implemented.

In staffing terms alone, the minimum resourcing which would be required to implement Higher Still English would include class sizes across the subject of no more than 16, and a major increase in administration, preparation and assessment time. This would ensure that in a school day of, say, six periods, the teacher of English would have classes in no more than three and that each teaching period would be followed by a non-contact period. Are the authorities prepared to offer these necessary, professional conditions of work? If not, then they cannot implement Higher Still.

But even this would do nothing to solve the undesirable nature of the Higher Still proposals. Messages from teachers all over Scotland make clear that there is widespread disapproval of the requirement to be both teacher and examiner of pupils at senior level. Contrary to the claims made by the authorities, this is not quite what happens in universities and, besides, universities are not schools - they do not offer an intense pastoral, social and parenting role to children. The proposed system will lead to a national qualification which lacks credibility. This is already apparent in the discredited system worked by the former Scottish Vocational Educational Council in our schools and in the gathering of the former Scottish Examinations Board assessment materials internally, for it is open to abuse.

There is an unavoidable variety of approaches among classroom teachers in administering and supervising internal assessment. Multiply this by the variety of approaches between schools and regions and you have an assessment system which cannot conceivably carry the responsibility of certificating pupils at Higher or other levels.

Add to this the involvement of parents, tutors and others, and the opportunity for blatant cheating - distributing model answers through the Internet or among neighbourhood schools or in the market-place - and you have a certification system without credibility. Whatever its faults, the present external examination system in Scotland has evolved a combination of rigour and fairness which makes it internationally credible.

In response to the current league table mentality and the need to be seen to be raising standards, the Higher Still model of assessment over-emphasises measurement and attempts to reduce intellectual processes to easily measurable categories - impossible in English teaching unless you foresee, as many of us suspect, the ultimate demise of literature as a component in the syllabus.

All of this adds up to a serious lowering of educational standards. For modularisation, when it is combined with the practical impossibility of administering to 30 pupils following two or more different levels of syllabus and the need to produce favourable-looking results for national statistics, will place irresistible pressure on teachers to pass pupils and dilute syllabuses so that failure is unlikely.

What is proposed is a movement away from everything that the Scottish educational tradition has espoused. So far, English teachers have voiced the loudest opposition to Higher Still, but others raised similar concerns. Before the inevitable chaos is produced in our classrooms, let us scrap these proposals and readdress the whole issue from a genuinely Scottish educational perspective.

Tony McManus is an assistant principal teacher of English at Queensferry High School, Edinburgh

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