Long struggle to get new exam established

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Urdu makes the grade

The first official request for a Scottish qualification in Urdu came in 1987 when the education committee of the then Strathclyde wrote to the Scottish Examination Board. The region argued that Urdu was the only one of the so-called community languages in which the uptake was high enough to merit developing a new exam. The wide range of initial competence, ranging from bilingual children to complete beginners, was, the committee suggested, a strong argument in favour of the broad assessment base of Standard grade.

When the examination board, now the Scottish Qualifications Authority, is approached about developing a new exam, it liaises with the Scottish Office and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. In this case, at a time when Standard grade was being developed, the Scottish Office argued that resources should be concentrated on existing subjects, and Strathclyde's request was turned down.

It was six years later that Gordon Wilson, then headteacher of Shawlands, wrote to the SEB. The number of pupils studying the subject was increasing rapidly, and the problems with the GCSE meant that a strong case could now be made for a Scottish qualification. This time the request was approved in principle, and the Secretary of State instructed the SEB to develop a Standard grade exam.

It is a little ironic that the present request for an Urdu exam at Higher should come just as Higher Still is occupying everyone's minds. The response from the SQA is exactly the same as it was in 1987: development is to be concentrated on existing subjects. Perhaps in another six years Higher Still will be able to accommodate Urdu.

Veronica Smith, qualifications manager at the SQA, is sympathetic to the strongly-felt need, but says, "I think we need to see how the Standard grade settles in and beds down. We need to see the size of the demand before considering developing the coherent pathway beyond that."

The difficulty with taking Urdu on board Higher Still now, she says, is really down to a lack of resources, "human resources as much as anything. There is a certain inevitability about the development of Urdu and other community languages in the Higher Still framework," says Ms Smith, but she is unable to put any kind of timescale on it. In the meantime, she points out, National Certificate modules at levels three and four could act as a stop-gap, giving pupils the chance to pursue the subject further within a Scottish qualification framework.

What should not be forgotten, in the midst of concerns for the future, is that the introduction of Standard grade has been a success. The SQA, the Pakistani community and the teachers have all expressed their satisfaction with the exam, and teething troubles seem to have been remarkably few.

There are those who would have preferred to see a dual examination, as exists in Gaelic, differentiating between native speakers and beginners, but Ms Smith argues, "in Gaelic it was difficult to establish who was a beginner, and in Urdu the range of different backgrounds would make it even more difficult.

"There is also a slightly political reason. We wanted to put something in place which would hopefully encourage white kids to take the subject as well as those with a background in Urdu. And there is the question of the status of the subject. Urdu is being treated as a modern language, ranged alongside French, German, Spanish and all the rest." Furthermore, she says, the three levels of Foundation, General and Credit should allow all levels of candidate to demonstrate achievement.

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