Group awards are still too good to miss

15th September 2000 at 01:00
The debacle at the SQA must not blind colleges to the overwhelming advantages of Higher Still, says Jennie Macdonald

A UNITISED course with robust internal assessment is the bedrock for flexible educational provision. Don't let the exams fiasco undermine it.

Further education is no exception to the rest of the system in confronting the failure of the Scottish Qualifications Authority to deliver correct exam results which, with the resultant appeals debacle, is a disaster that touches almost every family and educational institution. No one is left unscathed.

However, it is important to realise that these problems do not stem directly from the new Higher Still arrangements. The faults are administrative and managerial - not educational. A way must be found to simplify the system without sacrificing its structure and principles.

Abandoning unit assessment (mooted by Fred Forrester in The TES Scotland of September 1) is not the answer and would seriously undermine a unitised system which allows students to build up a course as it suits their needs and situation. The "strait-jacket" is not the four credit courses, but the rigid two-term dash to the exam on which everything hinges. The "ladders and bridges" dismissed so lightly are new pathways and opportunities allowing a much broader section of those over 16 to learn at their own pace.

A system that allows a single parent to study part-time and gradually build up a group award over a few years, taking unit assessments as and when they can and sitting the exam at the most convenient diet, is sound and should not be sacrificed. Whether in hairdressing or history, the opportunity for recognised achievement should be there in a robust qualification, with a mix of internal and external assessments.

I recently canvassed reaction to Higher Still from lecturers in Clydebank College who are delivering Scottish Group Awards for the first time this session - in art and design and social sciences. Unequivocally, they welcome the changes. "Never before has it been possible n this college to offer a programme that includes three complete Higher courses and the opportunity to produce a folio for art school," one lecturer said. "It offers students a really substantial qualification which we hope will be viewed favourably by the art schools."

The social science award is described as much better than the old modular programme, which was different in each college and had no standardised assessments.

With Higher Still courses, you know what the course consists of and that everyone will be using the National Assessment Bank: the group award is a cohesive and robust national qualification.

Internal assessment has never been a major issue for FE. A language module used to have 14 assessments - under Higher Still there are only six. Communication 3 had six assessments in 40 hours - in Intermediate 2 English and communication there are only six assessments in 120 hours. The result is that under Higher Still you actually have time to teach.

Nor you do have to spend copious amounts of time making up the assessments - they're all there in the bank with the answers attached.

Yes, streamline the assessments by all means, but allow each unit to stand alone securely, with a meaningful piece of evidence to show what the student has achieved. To do away with this would be to lose the flexibility and potential of the whole system.

Of course there will be hiccups. These should be dealt with calmly and sensibly as they arise.

English and Communication is not being enforced this year. This is the correct approach with a subject where the workload has always been enormous. It's a pity that this tiptoe approach wasn't adopted by the politicians who pushed things on too quickly, or by the SQA which didn't pilot the new results system.

The consequence of rushing seems to be panic. We must take care that we don't throw the baby out with the bath water, thereby losing what is essentially good.

Jennie Macdonald is principal lecturer in communication and media at Clydebank College.

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