Literacy - Standard of writing in Highers wins praise

1st November 2013 at 00:00
Students showing major improvements in English skills, says SQA

The ability of Higher students in written English has markedly improved, according to evidence from the Scottish Qualifications Authority, suggesting that a renewed focus on literacy from the government is having an impact in schools.

This year's external assessors' reports, published by the SQA, show that despite regular criticism from business leaders of school-leavers' poor English skills, overall writing standards are improving.

Teachers in several subjects are praised for preparing students better and for making a concentrated effort to iron out common writing problems from previous years.

The reports note significant improvements in traditional essay subjects, including English and history, with candidates commended for "sophisticated vocabulary" and their ability to structure essays. They also reject claims that the maths Higher has been dumbed down.

Several experts put the change in English standards down to a sustained drive to improve literacy, which has included placing it at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence.

Judith Gillespie, who sits on the Scottish government's Standing Literacy Commission and chaired the 2009 literacy commission, said there was "no doubt that there has been a re-awakening of the fact that literacy and good English matter".

"There was a period that everyone denies existed when these things were not taken as being critical, but the government has taken up literacy as an issue it is going to pursue, and it is now a central part of Curriculum for Excellence," she told TESS.

Tommy MacKay, the educational psychologist who pioneered the scheme that helped West Dunbartonshire almost to eradicate illiteracy in primary schools over the decade to 2007, said that Scotland may now be reaping the rewards of years of investment in initiatives to improve literacy.

He also said that teachers had become much better at instilling good English skills in their students.

"I remember working across many local authorities in that earlier period (from 1997), setting up literacy programmes, and one constant was that teaching left a lot to be desired," he said. "There is much more emphasis now on teacher training."

Mike Corbett, president of NASUWT Scotland and an English teacher in East Dunbartonshire, said that improvements were also likely to be linked to the reintroduction of externally assessed writing in English. "We have certainly seen more engagement with writing from most senior pupils since then," he said.

Many markers found that Higher history extended essays had improved this year. "Centres are to be commended for clearly focusing on what was a neglected part of the essay: structure," the assessors' subject report states. Less traditional essay subjects such as biology also attract praise.

Meanwhile, Higher English folios showed that "candidates had clearly been encouraged . to strive for excellence in writing", the SQA said.

Literacy is a central part of Curriculum for Excellence and is one of the three areas all teachers are responsible for - the others two being numeracy, and health and well-being.

However, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union and a former principal teacher of English, said that students sitting Highers this year had not studied under the new curriculum and therefore any improvement in performance was likely to be down to teachers' familiarity with the demands of the exams.

In contrast to the praise meted out in some reports, others complained of poor handwriting and errors in punctuation and spelling.

Meanwhile, claims that this year's Higher maths exam had been "dumbed down" in the wake of the entire setting team walking out earlier this year have been rejected by the SQA.

A report by the principal assessor for maths said: "Markers and centres reported that the level of demand and coverage of the course was good."

Another accusation, made by former principal assessor of maths Clive Chamber, was that the paper had lacked "natural flow" and that some students might have struggled to finish.

But the external assessor report states: "A high percentage of pupils, at all levels, tackled most questions and there were few blank spaces."

The lowest mark for students achieving an A was 94 out of 130, compared with 92 out of 130 the previous year and 97 out of 130 in 2011 and in 2010, it adds.

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