Of National importance

14th June 2013 at 01:00

Your article on the end of Standard grades ("Stop what you are doing, the Standard grade is over", News Focus, 31 May) did an excellent job of reminding us what we may be missing, and flagging up some of the difficulties we face with the new Nationals.

Standard grades were fully researched, planned, piloted and resourced - Nationals are none of these. The Standard Grade Arrangements document - for physics, at least - was a commendably slim volume that told you all you needed to know to run the course. The documentation produced so far for the National physics courses runs to some 800 pages and marks the ultimate triumph of waffle and confusion over brevity and clarity.

Standard grade physics was a course with a recognisable beginning, middle and end. The National "courses" are awkward collections of units with no sense of flow or development.

Yes, Standard grades were a little dated. The teaching of the black and white TV has been a standing joke in the physics community for years, but half-a-dozen experienced teachers could have updated the course in a week. Perhaps Foundation level was "interpreted negatively" as you describe it - but at least it was validated by an external exam. Now, with the National 5 physics exam looking considerably more challenging than credit level, we will probably see the majority of students in Scotland gaining National 4 or National 3 qualifications - both wholly reliant on unwieldy internal assessment. Will not students, parents and the public view these qualifications negatively? The one major weakness of the Standard grade science courses was internal assessment, where it was not at all uncommon for every student in a class to gain a grade 1 in the practical abilities element. It is ironic that this is the one aspect that remains.

Standard grades, as two-year courses, may be incompatible with the broad general educationsenior phase model. But someone forgot to tell the people putting together the National courses in the sciences that they were one-year courses. The courses remain very content-heavy - not necessarily a bad thing, as science is nothing without a good knowledge base. As a result, most schools with which I am familiar are (with varying degrees of disguise) running the National science courses over two years. In one case at least, the school has received the enthusiastic approval of the education secretary for its approach.

Professor Donaldson notes that "almost every change, if it is worthwhile, has produced that initial period of uncertainty and difficulty". It is a very big "if".

Nicholas Hardwick, East Lothian.

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