Early presentation a mature way to go
The findings of the final report on the Kirkcudbright Academy curriculum flexibility project, by the Government-commissioned monitoring and evaluation team from Glasgow University, should ruffle a few policy- making feathers.
For those of us who have lived and breathed the project since its conception almost 10 years ago, the outcomes are enormously encouraging. Our goal has always been to improve the opportunities for our young people and to engage more of them in a wider understanding of what education is and how and where it can happen.
It is ironic that an innovation encouraged by the waiving of age and stage restrictions in 1998 by the then Scottish Executive (and supported by project funding), planned, consulted on and implemented in what HMIE judged to be a model manner and whose results are incontrovertibly positive, should now find its impact and future development threatened by a different Government whose policy advisers find key aspects of our curriculum unpalatable.
The project grew out of a realisation of all the things that we were not doing, things that were preventing us from being truly inclusive and relevant (what we now have to call self-evaluation). Today, we do many more things in a much wider variety of ways, attempting all the time to offer relevant pathways and real challenges. And it is in the notion of "challenge", that, paradoxically, this innovation finds itself out of fashion.
One of the challenges we prepare our pupils for is "timely presentation" for external assessment in the shape of national examinations (a mixed economy of Standard grade and Intermediate courses). The label attached to this by its detractors is, of course, "early presentation", with its connotations of prematurity.
External summative assessment at the end of S3 is not precipitate if it is, indeed, well prepared for, within capacity and a validation of prior learning against nationally-recognised standards. It is not an attempt to get S4 results out of S3 pupils; it is a strategy which gives pupils (and their parents and teachers) confidence in what they have achieved and an accredited benchmark to enable accurate choice of courses in the senior phase.
We have discovered, not altogether unexpectedly, that it has additional relevance and benefits. We did not plan for all pupils to sit examinations in all subjects; we envisaged summative assessment only in areas which were not being continued. Parents and pupils, however, were keen to find out how they were doing and, after the first cohort went through the process, we learned a number of lessons: the exam experience encouraged a massive step forward in maturity; the positive results gave confidence boosts to children and families across the ability range, but especially to those of low aspiration and expectation; the sharpening of study and exam techniques being taught across the school meant that the challenges of the senior phase were manageable by all pupils and the need to "dash" disappeared.
Indeed, I would argue that pupils who have sat and succeeded in exams at appropriate levels in S3 are much more focused and composed in their approach to the smaller number of more demanding tests that they sit over the three years of S4-6.
We have rediscovered, in effect, that all kinds of assessment are for learning. Good teachers know that summative assessment of some kind provides the target that makes all the formative, diagnostic and continuous assessment meaningful and that, for many goals to be reached, the achievement is marked by the attainment.
Young people need to learn how assessment works and what strategies they should use to manage it. After all, when we are recording all the different kinds of broader achievement, for some we are inevitably going to use the measurements that are the assessed parts of cycling proficiency, sporting trials, auditions, guide, scout and cadet badges, Duke of Edinburgh's Award, interviews for part-time work and voluntary service, and so on.
In each and every case, the right kind of assessment at the right time offers pupils the opportunity to show what they can do. We are now told that the end of S3 is the wrong time. But why is this if the pupils have covered the ground successfully and are ready to meet the challenge (as clear evidence from this and other schools shows)? What empirical evidence is there to tell us that S4, or indeed any other stage, is the right time?
Kirkcudbright Academy's curriculum flexibility project has been through a period of intense scrutiny - one of the most extensive longitudinal research programmes ever undertaken in secondary education in Scotland. It has been a protracted examination, but we have learned much from the process.
Our curriculum is not perfect, is subject to continuing review and development and does not offer an off-the-peg template for all other schools. It does, however, offer suggestions, directions and insights that deserve discussion, not dismissal. If you look at how we have been assessed and the results of that assessment - our achievements - there are positive lessons for all to learn.
Dugald Forbes is headteacher of Kirkcudbright Academy.