Exam body promises new era of transparency

21st May 2010 at 01:00
SQA offers teachers their say as new examinations are drafted

Another move to placate secondary teachers and make sure Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) gets off the ground has emerged this week, The TESS can reveal.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is responding to the clamour for more information about the new exams system by revamping its consultation process so teachers are involved early on.

Instead of waiting until the final version of the new qualifications is ready, the SQA plans to give teachers the chance to comment at various stages of development of the controversial new National 4 and 5 and other exams which are being amended to fit CfE.

It comes hard on the heels of the announcement from HMIE last week that it was suspending its inspections of secondaries in the first term of the new session to allow inspectors to support them in implementing the new curriculum. Both moves are part of the 10-point action plan on CfE unveiled by Education Secretary Michael Russell in March.

The first signs of the SQA's commitment on consultation will come later this month when it publishes progress reports for seven of the eight curricular areas; the report on religious and moral education has been delayed and will come later.

It has also published a timeline of key milestones it expects to meet before the implementation of the new assessments in 2013-14.

Gill Stewart, director of qualifications development at the SQA, told The TESS that exams had tended in the past to be developed "in a black box"; the first teachers saw of the end product was when it emerged from the authority's development teams and the new arrangements were published on its website, she said.

"Now we want to put more on the website at key points during the process so people can see where we are," said Dr Stewart.

As the SQA develops qualifications, it will post information on the CfE area of its website; teachers can sign up to its MyAlerts service to keep up to date with developments in their particular area.

The progress reports will describe the work carried out so far and summarise the research that has been done in each curricular area. The science report, for example, is likely to describe developments outside Scotland in updating the curriculum and assessing students' knowledge.

She said: "The progress reports will ask: `does that tell us anything about what we should be doing here?' I'm not saying we will adapt what they are doing in Australia, for instance, but we will be looking outwards at other approaches and seeing whether we want to take any on board."

At the end of July, the SQA will also publish an overview of each curriculum area, with information about its proposals for each course and what it plans to offer. Some of these proposals will fall into the category of what Dr Stewart describes as "obvious no-brainers" - qualifications in biology, chemistry, physics, maths and English, for example.

But there are other areas in which the authority wants to ask teachers questions, such as:

  • should there be a new course in environmental sciences? If so, what should it cover and could it be tailored to include local issues?;
  • should there be a new award in health and well-being?;
  • should there be a new applied maths course introduced to assess the mathematical skills needed for life and work?;
  • should there be more generic, lower-level courses, such as a creative arts course, which cuts across drama, art and design and dance?
    • Dr Stewart cites the authority's response to complaints from teachers that the recently-revised Higher biology syllabus omitted key areas such as evolution and ecology (TESS, March 12), as an example of the SQA's new "listening mode".

      She continued: "The physics and chemistry people were happy with the direction of travel for their subjects, but in biology, the team had gone a bit too far, so we have taken on board teachers' comments and are doing a bit of redrafting.

      "That's the approach we want to take with Curriculum for Excellence developments - to share things with people, get their feedback, and make changes if required."

      The SQA has set up curriculum area review groups (CARGs) - senior people from local authorities, schools and colleges - to look at the high-level strategic issues for qualifications in each curriculum area. They will be expected to ensure cross-curricular links are in place, for example, that maths, science and technology have a similar approach to the use of graphical information and number processes.

      One level below, qualifications design teams (QDTs) - made up of teachers nominated by local authorities - will develop courses in their subject area and have a quality assurance role.

      Below that, the authority is asking teachers to volunteer as members of subject working groups (SWGs) to produce detailed material as directed by the relevant QDTs. Both these levels will start work this summer.

      This unprecedented type of consultation will inevitably create "a bit of noise in the system", predicts Dr Stewart. But unlike past practice, by consulting as it goes along, the SQA hopes it will improve its chances of providing an end product that meets most teachers' approval.

      "You don't listen to people at your peril, because they are saying things for good reasons," she said.


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