With the first cohort of pupils about to sit the new Highers later this month, Raymond Ross visits St John's High School in Dundee and talks to other schools around the country about how it's all going
The speed is exhausting," says David McDermott, a sixth-year student at St John's High School in Dundee. "There's not enough time to fit in the whole subject, especially in maths and science. There's not enough time to do experiments or for the teacher to show them. "I did the old Higher in maths last year and I find the new one more focused and easier for studying. I got a D last year and a B in this year's prelim. It's maybe easier because it's my second year at Higher level but I feel it's more structured and because you have to pass the unit assessments it makes you make sure you know your stuff."
End of unit assessment is clearly an issue for David and his peers at St John's, as it is for senior pupils nationwide.
Another St John's pupil Laura Fraser (S5) says: "Unit assessment makes you study but it's an extra pressure. At times it's too much, like when I got three unit assessments in one week."
"It's a lot of pressure," agrees Sarah Hendry (S5), "but I do feel more motivated and I still enjoy school".
"Unit assessment gives you more confidence if you've passed," says Finola Smith (S5), "and it also means you're constantly revising, but it's difficult finding time to do them if you've been off or failed the first time".
"Unit assessments mean you're already learning for the exam," comments Andrew Farrell (S5), while Pauline Cassidy (S5) thinks them "good" because"You have to work harder if you only get a C at unit assessment and you want to improve your grade."
The headteacher of St John's, George Haggarty, says that the "balance of the argument at the moment" is that"young people are encouraged by internal assessment. It's brought some pressure on teachers and to some extent on young people, but to a healthy degree."
Mr Haggarty broadly welcomes the new Higher Still and sees it as "the curriculum catching up with where young people are today. The job market is no longer providing options for young people with no qualifications."
Is there, then, already evidence that the new exam structure is promoting inclusion? "For us it's all gone as well as you could have hoped, but I think we will still need to revisit our aims and ask if we have achieved inclusion and upped the S5S6 intake in future years. In our school the pick-up has been stronger than expected and it's beginning to show positively with S6 figures rising from 70-80 to 120 this year and, with a small S4 year group from last year, S5 figures have risen from 120 to 130. I think we'll end up with an upper school of 240-250 as opposed to 180-200."
"It is a meaningful, certified curriculum," says St John's assistant head Margaret McFarlane."There is a clear, meaningful progression route for less able pupils who progress by smaller steps and it also challenges the more able. It is about laying foundations for lifelong learning. It just needs time to bed down."
Time and time management are recurring matters when you talk to eachers and pupils about the new Higher arrangements.
"The lack of time at school level," Mr Haggarty concedes, "is impeding progress on core skills and group awards. A lot of work has gone into embedding them in the new courses.
"Nationally we were told to put them on the back burner and then to bring them forward as a priority. But it takes a lot of time to track an individual pupil at the moment, although software is beginning to become available. The admin challenge in tracking for group awards is huge."
At St John's the role of guidance is crucial to this. "In August, with Higher Still in mind, we changed our guidance structure from horizontal to vertical so that all guidance teachers work with all year groups rather than following an S1 year group through to S6 individually. This puts them into a better position to track for group awards, but it's meant a lot of extra work," says Mr Haggarty.
The three end-of-unit assessments have also increased everyone's workload including setting up report arrangements. "We can't physically run to four reports a year, so we've achieved an acceptable compromise of two. It is a problem area," he says.
"The question is, I suppose, are end-of-unit assessments a stepping stone or a hurdle? In certain subjects like history and English, a lot of pupils mature over time and will give their best performance in April or May. Yet they are expected to hit the same level in December or even earlier.
"We use the SQA's National Assessment Banks rather than developing our own. (The NABs are meant to operate as external assessment procedures in conjunction with the teacher's own holistic judgment). Cut-off scores were never trialled, so if a pupil fails narrowly you can retest them, but you wait until they're ready to pass. There's a limit to the number of retests you can do."
Like almost every other school St John's has had its problems with the Scottish Qualifications Authority's computers, but these, says Mr Haggarty, are "teething problems", mostly sorted out over the phone. A more serious issue is the timing of the Higher Still reforms, coming as they do on top of target setting.
"At the moment the art of management is integrating new strategies. It's one initiative on top of another and I don't want to put one pressure more on pupils. We are not allowing target setting to overshadow the priority of getting Higher Still into place. If a pupil is suited to Intermediate level, then he or she just has to do that, rather than a push for Higher for the sake of targets.
"Staff are working enormously hard and through no one's fault time is lacking. It's the nature of schools that you just get on with the job."
Time pressures have led some schools to eat into areas like personal and social development and religious education but so far St John's has been protective of such areas. "Higher Still could have put a lot of pressure on PSD but we've retained it along with with RE, of course," Mr Haggarty says. "You have to remember, the bottom line is we are about educating the whole child. We're not just about certification. But, yes, the pressure is there."