Please Sir, we want some more

11th May 2012 at 01:00
Teachers call for greater guidance on what to teach for the new National qualifications

The introduction of Scotland's new National qualifications took an important step forward last week.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority published the final specifications for the new courses - those for Nationals 4 and 5 were eagerly awaited by teachers - and Education Scotland published advice and guidance.

But as the focus of senior school qualifications shifts towards skills for life beyond the classroom, with schools expected to implement them in just over a year, teachers are calling for more guidance on what they should be teaching and the standards students should be meeting.

The replacement of Standard grade and Intermediates 1 and 2 with Nationals 4 and 5 was never expected to be plain sailing. But already concerns are emerging about some aspects of the new courses, despite an unprecedented level of consultation.

The sciences have seen greater revision than many other subjects.

Stuart Farmer, coordinator of the Institute of Physics teacher network, says that although Education Scotland has provided some learning and teaching advice in its "suggested learning activities", there is "much left to the teacher to flesh out" and make the learning come alive so that it is interesting and motivating.

"I fear teachers and learners may have to skim across much content in the time available and it won't be possible to do much deep learning. There is also little guidance on the nature of the assignments at National 5 and Higher, which is a great concern to many," he said.

Physics teachers' professional networks, such as the IOP Sputnik email list and resource, would provide the support that the SQA and Education Scotland were failing to give, he suggested.

Fran Macdonald, head of chemistry at The Glasgow Academy, is concerned that the National 5 chemistry course will be too difficult, with areas such as nuclear chemistry imported from Higher.

"An unintended consequence of this new course could be that three years from now, students will have told their smaller siblings how hard National 5 chemistry is and the S3 children will simply stop opting for such a difficult subject," she warned.

In history, in which the study of Scotland's past has been made mandatory, there are claims that the new courses have failed to reflect consultation responses.

Neil McLennan, president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History, predicts that turning the popular unit on the Great War (the build-up, execution and aftermath) into a Scottish unit on politics, industry and domestic economy (1914-18) will be a turn-off for pupils (see page 35).

Geography teacher and SSTA council member Rob Hands is upbeat about the new geography National 5 course, however, despite having concerns about a tight timescale for implementation and the need for better resourcing.

"This looks like a well-timed, well-needed update of a tired syllabus, Standard grade, and to a lesser extent, Intermediate 2 - and a move to a more active and engaging form of study that is modern in its outlook . At its heart is an emphasis on investigative learning which should engage young people at this stage very well," he says.

Alan Taylor, an SSTA council member who served on the modern languages qualifications design team, fears that National 4 in his subject has become too ambitious and is "close to being Higher work", particularly in its expectation that pupils should study French film and TV.

"The thing that's missing is the support materials which the minister (Michael Russell) says will be provided. They will be needed in quite a lot of depth," he says.

Last week, Mr Taylor argued that teachers should have been supplied with individual paper copies of the final documents. By the end of the week, the SQA announced that every school and college would receive one complete printed set.

Gill Stewart, the SQA's director of qualifications development, said more exemplification would be available in the coming months.

Ten large-scale curricular events will be hosted by the SQA later this month and a further 10 in September, while further subject-specific events will run between October and March. Specimen exam papers will come on- stream in February 2013.

Embracing change: views from the inside

Marj Adams, principal teacher of philosophy, psychology and RMPS at Forres Academy, Moray, and member of the psychology qualifications design team and the philosophy subject working group.

"With philosophy, we didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater: aspects of the previous course which were good and could allow us to focus on skills - and skills are driving this - were kept.

The most innovative thing is the drive to make sure that learners will be less spoon-fed for exams. For me, that is a huge improvement. We are all familiar with the situation of swotting up for something, sitting the exam but a week later not being able to do it again. Now, hopefully, learners will be more autonomous and teachers and lecturers will be freed up to teach the subject rather than train people to produce rote-learned answers.

One of the aims of the new philosophy course, even at National 5 level, is to develop and encourage learners' ability to use abstract thought - you can use that in life and employment."

Sally Smith, head of Napier University's school of computing and member of the technologies curriculum area review group.

"I think what we have come up with is very good, a much better qualification. Computing now has much more programming and more hands-on experience early on to excite and enthuse pupils about that subject area. The old course was really poor and too theoretical.

There's more of an emphasis on showing skills that match with what employers, colleges and universities want. It also empowers pupils to show they can see a direct relationship between what they are doing in the classroom and life.

I know the SQA has been bashed by teachers for not being ready and the timescale being too tight, but I think they have done a very thorough job."

Jennifer Shearer, principal teacher of classicsRME at Kirkcaldy High, Fife, and member of the Latin subject working group.

"The big change is that Latin in the new scheme of things is going to be more inclusive. For the first time, we are going to have Access 3 Latin - or National 3 Latin.

In the past, the perception has been that Latin is for the very able ones; now we can very clearly show that Latin is valuable and achievable for learners at all levels and that all learners can benefit from it.

The emphasis is now more on skills. They will still be expected to be studying the language, literature, culture and the civilisation and legacy of the Romans, but the emphasis has shifted on to skills to improve evaluation, confidence and general literacy.

The SQA's `have your say' online facility has been positive. And it was not just teachers - an 80-year-old grandmother got in touch with `have your say' on proposals for Classical Greek."

Amanda Gracie, principal teacher of creative arts, St Luke's High, East Renfrewshire, and member of the drama subject working group.

"The main thing is the hierarchies now fit together; before we had issues with the step between Standard grade and Higher, and Intermediate 2 and Higher. Textual analysis was lacking and pupils couldn't take on a theatre production role - it was really just going from acting to acting.

I am now principal assessor for National 5 for drama and will definitely be working on a specimen paper and getting exemplification for that.

I would agree with what they are saying - that they need more exemplification - but it's on the way. I am writing it."

Clydebank High: `The guidance is still too short on reassurance'

Teachers at Clydebank High, West Dunbartonshire, say they have really embraced Curriculum for Excellence. But despite intense support at school and local authority level, many feel the national guidance has not provided the support they were hoping for.


Yva McKerlich-Young

We have spent a lot of time in the department making something practical out of the draft documents. Seeing the final versions, I'm pleased to say there was more clarity.

Our departmental concern is that as a school we are striving for consistency and achieving it through departmental working within the school and within the council. But that consistency is not shared among different councils, especially in exemplification of pupil working.

We want to see exemplification of teaching approaches and support for practitioners, but also to see "what does this level look like at this stage?" so we can inform pupils of what the expectations are.


Laura McNiven, PT

The 30th (of April) came and went and I was hoping we'd get a checklist to show we were doing the right things - maybe leave that out, put that in. It hasn't happened. There's not a lot in terms of guidance and support.

There are three units in geography - human, physical and environmental. In human geography - where they want us to do this added-value unit - I downloaded the exemplar and got a farming unit - it's basically one page.

I was hoping for a "how to" kit or "this is what we're looking for". But when I looked at it, I thought: "That's OK - we can do this." But there are no details to just let us know that we are doing the right stuff to get our kids through the assessment or exam.


Jonathan Dobbin

There are five documents in maths. To be honest, they're not what I expected, given the build-up. In terms of guidance and advice, I am not sure if it falls into that category - when I look at it, it's basically some nice ideas. I don't think we need resources and lesson plans.

An exam specimen paper would have helped. It would have been more beneficial to get content checklists - I was looking for advice and guidance on what changes had been made, telling us why they had been made, and advice along that line.

The exemplar was a lesson on how to teach a scattergraph - in my opinion that's not unknown territory.


Martin Wood (PT)

I was not a fan at the start - it might have been the worry about not having materials handed to us. But the more we've done it - it's been a lot of hard work doing it for ourselves - it's been wonderful.

Although there's only a single exemplar in the energy unit, you can do different things with it. In National 5 - projectile motion analysis and graphs using up-to-date data sampling - we've already gone down that route before. We started some of this course as an elective last year, when we got pupils to design a rocket-powered car and work out how to get it to go faster. This exemplar has added ideas to what we are going to use. I was looking for more, but it's a start.


Mark Hunter, PT

I had seen the draft documents and begun to use the information to ensure I was on the right track for our Level 4National 4 transition between the junior and senior phases. When the final documents were published, my initial reaction was: "Is this it?"

I hope, and understand, that more support will be published. I am surprised we don't have greater structure in terms of the learning outcomes. We're familiar with these for CfE and we have embraced all the different dimensions.

Having said that, for the National qualifications senior phase, I think it's asking a lot of us to develop courses basically from scratch without further structure and support.


Jackie Nicolson, PT

From what I have seen so far, it's recycled information from before - it's not a lot different from the drafts. There are added-value units now and they seem quite straightforward.

In the area for health and food technology guidance, there's only one unit to download and it doesn't have much content. It's content we need rather than exemplars of teaching practice - more content so we know what to deliver specifically to meet the assessment needs, and exemplification of pupils' work so that we could see the standards they are expected to reach.


Alan McGregor

This new computing science course presents computing as it should be, as far as I am concerned. But on the flip side, there's going to have to be a lot of training and in-service support because some computing teachers have done no programming.

There's a mobile app unit which I've been very interested to read - pupils are going to love it. But the app is geared toward android phones. Most pupils have got BlackBerries, some have got iPhones, some don't have any and some have androids. I don't want to have parents potentially feeling they need to get an android phone.

This unit is not mandatory, but to teach it the way it's been presented requires a lot of mobile phone rethinking by local authorities.


Gail Cowan, PT

This school has bitten the bullet and we know where we're going. That reassures us.

I felt really let down and disappointed when I saw some of the material that came out last Monday for various reasons: the fact we had to download it ourselves - these documents are incredibly important and the fact you had to download it gives it less value.

On a positive note, there's not a wholesale change - for us, it's very manageable. But there were only two resources provided by Education Scotland - one, for National 4, about a detective series, which I could see myself using as listening material. But when I saw the National 5 listening, I knew I'd seen it somewhere before - it came out in 2007.

I don't mind that they are using old material, but I was looking for something new.


Patrick Carson, PT

The aspect I am most pleased with is the advice on the assignment at National 4. I think the assignment is an area that many teachers will want clear guidance on and this explained and summarised the process.

I'm less enthusiastic about the rest of it. There were 39 pieces of information in the modern studies advice and guidance section, and only two were new and relevant to the National qualifications we are developing.

Experienced teachers don't really require lesson suggestions, such as "cut-out cards". I would rather the advice and guidance were more detailed and strategic than, "Here are a few suggestions for explaining devolved and reserved powers."

Looking at the existing support materials, there were some that were 14 years old.


Barry Stansfield, PT of RME

I like the emphasis in the guidance on Bloom's Taxonomy and (Morag) McGinlay's skills. Analysis and evaluation have always been a part of RMPS.

It has first-class exemplification, although some seemed to be "came across that before". There was a good smattering of active learning ones too, although we are trying to do that anyway.

One of the things I like is that you get the little video clips on questions like "What's added value?" That's been nicely done. It's very clear about not just what added value means, but also the differences in the application of the added-value element. In National 4 it is an actual unit, whereas in National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher it's built into the overall assessment.

These are questions we have certainly been asking and I think the answers are quite sound and clear.

Original headline: The National exams are here - but can they stay on course?

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