Harris Academy in Dundee is one of the five top schools in Scotland for improving exam results. As it prepares for the Higher exams to start next Friday, Raymond Ross asks the staff how Higher Still is bedding in and how the Scottish Qualifications Authority is doing now
Working from 7.30am well into the evening is not unusual for Denis Speedie, depute headteacher at Harris Academy in Dundee and the school's co-ordinator for the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
Despite the workload ("It can be quite frightening"), Mr Speedie has no complaints about the SQA's performance this year ("They are behaving themselves") and no misgivings about the system producing results on time.
After its meltdown in 2000, it is now "a well-oiled machine", he says, welcoming in particular the appointment of schools account managers as "an enormous help".
Some days he says he feels like a "slave" to the SQA and wonders whether he really works for them rather than Dundee City Council.
"When I'm down on my knees scrabbling about my office at 8pm on a Tuesday night trying to stuff envelopes and I come across the SQA instruction 'Please pack as much into the envelope as you can because we pay Parcel Force by the unit', I ask myself, is this what I came into teaching for?"
He would never say he enjoys the SQA work and he would like an administrator to help, but he values the responsibility of it all.
"I like to see the exams go smoothly and see that the pupils are getting good accommodation, peace and quiet and a decent chance. It's the culmination of all their efforts and,ultimately, of their school careers," he says.
Harris Academy is among the five top improving schools for results in Scotland.
"We've got more and more pupils passing five Highers in S5 and the number getting three Highers in one year has rocketed, while the number getting only one in S5 has fallen. The figure for those getting five Highers in S6 has also shot up, as has the number in Advanced Highers," says headteacher Jim Thewliss.
When he took up his post six years ago, more than 20 per cent of S5 pupils were failing to gain any Highers and 30 per cent were passing only one.
"We turned this around by implementing Higher Still in its fullest form as quickly as we could. We planned for 18 months and began implementing Higher Still in 1999," he says.
The staff talk of problems of varying magnitude relating to the art and design course, bi-and tri-level teaching, internal assessment, administrative overload and the SQA's seeming inability to use plain English in its instructions, but the general picture is that Higher Still is now bedding in quite successfully.
Harris Academy's success has to do with careful pre-planning, a strategic use of staff and sheer graft. The school appointed both an SQA co-ordinator (Mr Speedie) and an assistant head as an internal Higher Still co-ordinator who liaised with all departments to create a strategy group. They made sure that no pupil would have more than two internal assessments, across all their subjects, on any given day.
"There was minimal impact when the SQA went into meltdown because we appointed a very computer-literate administration assistant to work full-time on the electronic and the paper back-up system," says Mr Thewliss. "This did, however, put the school office under considerable pressure."
The school doubled the senior pupils' guidance entitlement from half to one period a week and started informing parents immediately if their child missed an internal assessment.
The senior work ethic was also addressed, with S5 pupils having no free columns in their study plans and S6s only one.
"We planned well and were well aware of pitfalls in advance. We were willing to pay the price to make sure implementation was a success. The motivation was there prior to Higher Still," Mr Thewliss says.
Paying the price meant "a major impact" on the school development plan, he says.
"Ethos development had to go on the back burner to make way for the implementation, though we are back on line with it now.
"One major item which dropped off the agenda because of the 18 months we took out to make sure Higher Still was bedded in right, was the health promoting school programme. That will now become the high priority over the next three years.
"The cost to pay in overloading heavily in the senior school also meant we cut our S1 classes from nine to eight, with class sizes therefore rising from 25 or 26 pupils to 29 or 30," Mr Thewliss says.
"I do believe in cutting class sizes at S1, by the way, but my thoughts are that only a reduction to a number like 20 could have a really positive impact."
Although Harris Academy offers the same number of subjects to its Higher pupils as other schools in Dundee, it offers the greatest number of choices at every level from Intermediate to Advanced in the city.
Pupils' Standard grade results are studied carefully and staff work closely with pupils on their choices. "We keep all the statistics every year and we can tell who should be doing five Highers and who should be doing three in S5. We offer realistic course choices," says Mr Thewliss.
Overall he is happy with the way Higher Still is bedding in but, like his depute and many of his staff, says internal assessment remains the big issue.
"We'd all like to see a sensible assessment procedure," he says.
Principal teacher of history
"The SQA has tightened up considerably and Higher Still is a resounding success here because we've got courses to suit pupils' levels and, being a large school (the roll is 1,350), we can avoid bi-level teaching.
"Advanced Higher is to be welcomed because it legitimises post-Higher education as it is seen on a par with A-levels and is recognised by universities.
"Internal assessments are still a problem. A pupil doing five Highers might have 20 of them and they feel it puts them under enormous pressure.
"In general they could be reduced. In history there is duplication over essay writing in two of them. One could go or be modified.
"The duration of the exam has also been reduced compared to the old Higher and pupils do feel they could do with more time.
"Naturally we'd like more resources and more ICT would help."
Principal teacher of business education
"We are leading Higher Still now rather than it leading us. We can choose the order of assessments and set the pace.
"However, with three subjects - accountancy and finance, business administration and business management - no other department has as many assessments as we do. Including all Higher Still levels, we carry out more than 60 assessments a year. You have to stop teaching to make way for them.
"Some pupils say they help them but most think there are too many.
"Timing can also be a problem. Some of the assessments are an hour long: our lesson periods are only 50 or 55 minutes long.
"Absent pupils and resubmissions cause problems. And even when the school runs assessment evenings for the resubmissions, you still have to prepare them.
"Practical assessments, of course, have to be done in school time.
"Progression with Higher Still is good in the school because we take a lot of care getting the right pupils in the right courses at the right time.
"What's also good is that the SQA is more open now. Communication is much better."
Principal teacher of art and design
"There is no fault in the course philosophy but we don't have time to fulfil all the components properly.
"I feel a great deal of damage has been done to art and design through the restructuring of the old Higher, which only needed minor adjustment.
There's no comprehensive structure to the study of art history. It's randomly eclectic, piecemeal, inadequate and uneven. It doesn't give pupils an overall understanding of the history of art and design.
"I like the way part of the course encourages pupils to be pro-active and to look at contemporary art and design, but there's no place for individuality, creativity or real learning.
"The SQA continues to baffle and dismay art teachers with contradictions in systems, assessment procedures, course content and advice.
"The subject is being forced into a systems straitjacket which leaves little room for creativity or intellectual engagement with fundamental issues. Pupils should leave the subject with the ability to think creatively, with a desire to know more and an engagement with the subject which should be permanent and life-enhancing; not with knowledge of how to pass an examination."
Principal teacher of English
"There have been changes to English every year since its implementation but now they are promising no more changes for two or three years.
"They've tried to improve internal assessment by cutting the number from six to four but it doesn't make much difference to our workload because one of them is internal only, meaning we are the final arbiters.
"There are still concerns about pupils' internal assessment workload. They have to pass all the internals as well as the external exam to get a Higher but they can actually pass the external exam only and get certificated for just that. So, it does raise the question, why do we still have internal assessment?"
"English Intermediate 1 is too difficult and there's a lot of concern among teachers about it.
"The Higher is pretty well OK but the personal study would be better assessed externally. It is also a great shame that there's now no external assessment of writing.
"The Advanced Higher has been changed for the better and it does encourage independent study but the exam isn't testing enough.
Principal teacher of modern languages
"Higher Still has made languages a bit more accessible. It's not as difficult to get a good grade as it used to be.
"The pupils can prepare more for the exam. Maybe they memorise more than they try to understand, so they can't deal with the unexpected. The pre-prepared approach does not encourage individual thought or work.
"You can't assume that an A pass at Higher means the pupil has real mastery of the language. The topics up to and including Higher are a bit juvenile and undemanding compared to the old Higher.
"In reading, interpretation and listening they answer in English. It's a dilution, a lowering of standards.
"I'd rather not have the internal assessments as they duplicate what comes in the exam.
"The Advanced Higher is not very different from the old Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, but they now write their folio essays in English. The only work in the foreign language is one general essay in the external exam and one internal essay on literature in the foreign language. That's very poor."
Principal teacher of technology
"Higher Still brought positive baseline resources to technology across Scotland for the first time.
"Progression has improved from Standard grade through to Advanced Higher but the internal assessment burden is still very large, especially in a multi-subject department with different outcomes and assessment criteria.
We need less assessment and more consistency in the assessment approach across our subjects, a bit more standardisation.
"There are other factors at work, but Higher Still has seen an increase in the number of pupils in our department, including those doing art and design who come to us for craft and design and for graphic communication.
"The SQA does give more feedback but is still very bureaucratic and some unit assessment forms could certainly be refined and made simpler. But I would say, three to four years down the line, that things are beginning to look good."