External assessment may be too rigid

28th August 1998 at 01:00
Continuing our curricular reformseries, Neil Munro takes the temperature in further education

The reintroduction of external assessment in colleges, through project work, the deployment of visiting examiners or the use of externally marked papers, is a key change in colleges where internal assessment has held sway for well over a decade. It is the reverse of schools' preoccupation with the problems of internal assessment.

Principals expressed "major concern" last year that project assessment might be downgraded. They felt this would reopen the academic-vocational divide, which Higher Still aims to bridge if not close, since awards would be given only on completion of the course assessment.

Students will still be able to take units (as opposed to courses) which are to be internally assessed. The units will be particularly relevant for part-time students who do not want to face a full 160-hour course. But, for courses, the present policy is to have one external exam sitting - regarded as an inflexible timetable for colleges whose customers increasingly demand flexibility.

This decision is open to review but any second diet could not be introduced before January 2001. Mhairi Laughlin at West Lothian College says the departure from a purely internally assessed system could pose problems, particularly for adult returners.

John Young of the Scottish Further Education Unit believes colleges will gain more than they lose. "The parity of esteem across all courses and unified system of awards which Higher Still aims to achieve is a major goal for the colleges. External assessment is a key ingredient in ensuring comparability of awards and parity of esteem, maintaining standards and therefore giving assurances to users."

The development of the core skills which are all mandatory for the achievement of a Scottish Group Award is another major challenge. The five "coping skills" of communication, numeracy, problem-solving, information technology and working with others will be learnt through courses and subjects. But they will also be delivered through free-standing units, and achievements will be shown separately on the new Scottish Qualifications Certificate.

This requires a massive review of curricula. West Lothian College is currently looking at subject provision to see whether core skills should be "embedded, discrete or integrated".

Core skills are already part of GSVQs but, as Mr Young points out, school-leavers enrolling at college will now arrive with a core skills profile. "That implies more individual guidance and action planning for students, " he says.

West Lothian has invested in guidance, installing the PlanIT and Progress databases . But while the college has back-up support for the two guidance staff from tutors in each department a changeover of this magnitude requires training and links from the database to the tutorial staff. Yet another FE challenge.

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