Jingle hells

19th December 2014 at 00:00

The phrase "Christmas holidays" is, like the term "peacekeeping missile", an oxymoron. It's a contradiction for many pupils and teachers because of the assignment requirements for the new National 5 and Higher courses.

As well as preparing for mock exams and end-of-unit assessments, senior pupils and their teachers are also having to spend the Christmas "break" planning, drafting and checking the new mandatory assignments. These account for a third of the total mark for some exams and have to be taken seriously.

This is a new type of assessment. Pupils do the planning and research for these assignments and then write up their work under controlled conditions. Preparing for them presents a significant workload, with some overstretched pupils having to deal with five or more during the Christmas period.

Some students will become overwhelmed and give up. Others will become stressed and anxious. For many, the pleasure of learning will evaporate as the experience of exam courses becomes a negative one.

Then there is the problem of how much help pupils receive. It will, of course, be highly variable, with some students benefiting from far more assistance than others. A long-term staff absence, for example, could easily leave pupils underprepared and disadvantaged.

There are also huge workload implications for teachers, who may have 50 or more assignments to supervise. This entails checking that topics are suitable and meet the (often complex) conditions.

It all means, of course, that pupils with stronger support systems will do better than those getting less help. More than a few parents have already hired tutors specifically to help pupils with their assignments.

Independent schools, with their superior teacher-pupil ratios, and better equipment for scientific experiments and other practical work, have significant advantages.

As a result, the most disappointing consequence of the new assignment is that it will help to widen, rather than narrow, the appalling attainment gap that exists between those from richer and poorer backgrounds.

A key principle of Scotland's exam reform should have been the introduction of measures to make the system fairer for everyone, not to give advantages to those already endowed with considerable privileges. Coursework has a useful role and, in the right context, helps to develop important independent study skills. It can also engage pupils in deeper explorations of topics that they enjoy.

But the new arrangements are unfair and have overburdened both students and teachers. Course planners must have another look at the new exams and give serious consideration to the fairer alternative formats that could, and should, have been adopted.

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland

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