Help or hindrance?

3rd April 2015 at 01:00

Our senior teachers are fond of recounting to anyone who'll listen that they didn't get much help when they sat their Highers. There were no guidelines, revision aids or books of past papers, they say. They had no bite-size video clips or that thing called the internet.

Today our pupils have a multimillion-pound exam aid industry to help them pass. Easyto-follow textbooks, backed by imaginative internet resources, are far superior to those of the past. One teacher, when asked why her average number of Higher exam passes had increased from seven to 23, said a new course book had made the difference.

Improvements in exam passes have more to do with superior teaching and revision materials than dumbing down. Our digital generation is adept at using technology to help them improve their grades - they Skype friends for help with revision, they listen to lessons on their smartphones and follow online tutorials about complicated topics.

When I scolded my own teenager for peering too long at her phone, she promptly revealed screenshots of her revision notes. They were neatly arranged, with meticulous colour-coding, on a device that hardly ever leaves her side.

Yet many young people are struggling with the new exams. Increased coursework requirements have left candidates scrambling to finish the folios, assignments and investigations that have to be completed and passed to achieve National 4, National 5 and Higher qualifications.

It's too much in too short a time, particularly in schools that don't coordinate coursework or provide lessons in time management.

Some of the new exams involve long essay questions, which are also causing considerable consternation. The Higher in religious, moral and philosophical studies, for example, has switched from an exam paper of 25 questions to one with just five essay answers.

The ethos of Curriculum for Excellence, moreover, has led some headteachers to virtually ban tests in the lower school. Test marks, they argue, can embarrass and demotivate learners. The compassion is commendable, but a lack of regular testing means that pupils preparing for exams can find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Candidates from more affluent families can hire tutors to provide help with coursework and to develop or sharpen exam technique. We shouldn't underestimate the impact that tutors are having on attainment levels and the widening achievement gap between rich and poor.

Then there are the inequalities between subject departments. In a sensible world, each department would receive the financial resources they deemed suitable for their exam courses. The reality is that some are well-financed, whereas others don't get the funds to buy those excellent new textbooks that make such a difference.

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland

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