Exam subjects

29th May 2009 at 01:00


A revelation on revolutions

The Higher continues to be fair and consistent, pitched at the same level as NABs and past papers, according to the principal English and literacy teacher at St Joseph's Academy, Kilmarnock.

Claire McInally said the close-reading passages about methods of travel and the environment were "challenging but fair", and an improvement on the dry piece about agriculture used last year.

Candidates also appreciated the extra 15 minutes granted for the close- reading paper this year, which avoided the last-minute dash of previous years and allowed most candidates to get everything down. "It made quite a big difference," Mrs McInally said.

There were concerns about the close-reading extracts chosen at both Intermediate levels, however.

Intermediate 2 candidates, who tend at St Joseph's to be fifth-year pupils building on Standard grade General, had a passage about the effect of Charles Dickens's writings on black South African children in the apartheid era. It was an unfamiliar topic and there was lots of dauntingly complex language, although questions were pitched at the right level.

There were similar issues with Intermediate 1, for which the school's candidates are usually former Standard grade Foundation pupils. They read about the experience of being robbed in Prague, and had to negotiate references which would "go over the heads of teenagers in the 21st- century", such as "Velvet Revolution". Again, however, Mrs McInally found the questions fair.


Messy, and miserable

Many maths teachers condemned this year's Higher as "outrageous", said the principal teacher at Motherwell's Taylor High. Mark Dorris did not go quite so far, but agreed that the "vast majority of kids wouldn't have liked the Higher".

It was Paper 2 which prompted most concerns. The final three questions, Mr Dorris explained, were constructed in a way that, if pupils did not get off to a good start, they would struggle to get any marks. Neither were they "easy on the eye", with the jumble of information likely to throw candidates.

Mr Dorris said the bunching together of these difficult questions, which accounted for about half the Paper 2 marks, resulted in pupils emerging in despondent mood, even some of the most able.

Question 5 did not use a "traditional style of integration" and many were caught out in Question 6, on logarithms.

It had also been "unusual" for logarithms to appear as early as Question 3, which may have caused "panic". Question 4(c), on the circle, had no diagram; an "awful lot of pupils came out and said they didn't know what they were trying to describe", meaning the loss of all four marks.

The issues with Paper 2 were, to some degree, balanced by a "very fair" Paper 1. The multiple-choice section, in its second year, was "a lot more challenging" than in 2008, when it had been "far too easy".


Daily life revisited

The directed writing section in the Higher exam featured a topic common to language papers - an exchange visit. Candidates had to include six points, and mention additional ones, said Shafqat Rafiq, who teaches Urdu at Shawlands Academy, Glasgow.

The reading question covered employment - from pocket money to part-time jobs and full-time employment. Mrs Rafiq was pleased to see cultural issues, such as the good and the bad points of being a paper-boy or baby- sitting for a neighbour. "These are issues they deal with daily - things they should be talking about in languages: lifestyle, education and work. They are all relevant," she said.

The listening question dealt with a teacher exchange to an international school in a rural setting where a Chinese teacher was also working. Mrs Rafiq liked this as it touched on Pakistan's political links with China and gave an international perspective. The essay-writing question asked candidates to compare the advantages and disadvantages of living in the countryside and a city and was "very accessible".


Read, think, answer

Questions which touched on topical issues, such as hospital-borne infections and the development of new vaccines, went down well with pupils sitting this year's Higher exam, according to Marjorie Smith, a biology teacher at Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire.

Pupils enjoyed answering questions set in a modern context because they were about "something happening today", she said. "It was not old science - it was new science, so they liked that, which is what they are supposed to get. Biotechnology is different from biology because it's supposed to be about how biology is used."

Ms Smith also praised the paper for setting some questions in an industrial context. "One looked at the spillage of crude oil on land and the way in which biotechnology can be used during the clean-up to break down the petrol hydrocarbons."

Overall, the Higher exam was "fair but quite testing in many ways", she continued. Some questions used quite sophisticated language and the answers did not "just jump out". Students were therefore required to do a bit of reading and to think before answering - no bad thing, said Ms Smith. "I am quite complimentary about that because they were not just rushing to answer; they had to put their minds to it. We want them to engage a slightly deeper part of the brain than just what they immediately know."


Dictionaries at the ready

Standard grade at all levels was more difficult this year than it has been in previous years, thought Carole Robertson, a modern languages teacher at Bishopbriggs Academy in East Dunbartonshire.

Some of her pupils' reaction to the Foundation reading paper was that it was more difficult than those they had practised. Mrs Robertson thought the passage contained a lot of plurals and tricky vocabulary. "They had to do a lot of reading to get the answer and there were many compound nouns, so they were having to look up two parts of the dictionary," she said.

The General paper was challenging, to the extent that some of her Credit pupils thought the reading was more difficult than theirs. It contained words which might not have been found in their easy-learning dictionaries, she thought. The first question in the Credit reading paper was difficult and contained irregular verbs and past tenses.

The listening paper at Foundation was "quite difficult"; at General contained a lot of compound nouns and a number of irregular verbs; Credit started off difficult but became easier in the second half. The Higher paper was "predictable".


Working it all out

The quality of the recording used for this year's Higher French listening was "vastly improved", according to two modern languages teachers.

The pace, language and clarity of the exam - about a French assistant returning to Scotland to work for a second time - was better than in previous years, said John Wallace, principal teacher of modern languages at Stonelaw High, South Lanarkshire.

Alison Harvey, a French teacher at St Kentigern's Academy in Blackburn, West Lothian said that in the past, pupils had had to cope with crackly recordings, but the problem was rectified this year.

Overall, this year's Higher exam was very fair, the teachers agreed. The reading topic, about homeless people living in woods outside Paris, was "quite unusual" but achievable for most pupils, said Mr Wallace.

In the directed writing there were "no surprises", Ms Harvey felt. However, Mr Wallace thought students who had taken the "language and work" option, as opposed to studying a novel or DVD, had a better chance of answering well: "Usually the directed writing is about an exchange, but this was about a holiday job in France. Candidates who did the language and work option may have had an advantage. They will have covered things like applying for jobs and what you do during the working day."


Miller's crossing

The Intermediate 2 drama exam was "appropriately challenging" and required candidates to read the questions properly and interpret them, said Suzanne MacKenzie, who teaches drama at Elgin Academy in Moray.

She felt some questions were worded differently from previous papers, and did not cover the usual areas, although setting, atmosphere and target audience still featured. "This year's paper did not have much emphasis on directing or acting, but asked them to comment as a theatre lighting or sound technician," she said.

She liked Question 5, which she described as a "deep" question, in that it asked candidates to use the sub-text to illustrate the character's personality. Question 1, however, might have thrown some by its reference to opening scenes when it was really asking about themes and the issues being introduced. Mrs MacKenzie's class studies A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, set in a 1950s American home, as its drama extract.

This year's exam contained a couple of bigger-mark questions than last year. Overall, it was a "good paper - you could get your teeth into it", she felt.


Takes the biscuit

The Intermediate 2 exam for business management was well-balanced and topical, said Elma Cunningham, principal teacher of business studies at Carluke High in South Lanarkshire.

Since kids are "into chocolate biscuits", the choice of Uddingston-based Tunnock's teacakes as the case study was a real hit, said Mrs Cunningham. The company had had to take some of its teacakes off the market because its labelling had failed to match food standards regulations, she explained. "We had talked a lot about food standards in class so I was pleased when I saw it."

The second section of the exam, in which candidates must answer two out of five questions, was again well-balanced but sufficiently testing. All five of the questions had been well covered in coursework, she added.

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