The proper answer is to break up the SQA

29th September 2000 at 01:00
For an old SEB hand, working with the new qualifications authority was like battling with fog, says David Cockburn

FOR 22 years I was contracted to the former Scottish Examination Board: as marker, setter and, finally, for some eight years, as principal examiner of Higher English. In all that time, I never failed to be impressed by the efficiency of the SEB and the meticulous attention to detail by staff at all levels.

Indeed, my own interest in management and effective administration was engendered, informed and developed by what I witnessed. My management skills as a principal teacher of English, as an assistant headteacher and latterly as an assistant director of education were immensely influenced by my contact with the board.

The staff always had the interests of candidates uppermost: the very fact that parts of the exam were pre-tested outside Scotland, at considerable expense and trouble, in order to ensure the clarity and accuracy of the questions was a measure of how seriously the board took the reliability of the exam and its effect on candidates.

With the Scottish Vocational Education Council it was otherwise. One of my remits as assistant headteacher was liaison with both boards. My experience of the SEB as principal examiner was confirmed by my contact at school level: efficient, meticulous, professional. Scotvec, on the other hand, was laid back, at times tardy, and prone to mistakes.

I can understand why. Scotvec was there to service further education, where candidates undertook modules on a rolling programme. The council never had to deal with a terminal examination and that is what has made all the difference.

When I went into the private sector, my contact with the now Scottish Qualifications Authority was renewed. I helped establish a retail outlet as an SQA centre with approval to assess Scottish Vocational Qualifications to level 3. The experience was nightmarish in that there were endless forms to be completed, extremely tardy responses from the SQA and visits that were as bureaucratic as they were tedious.

Essential documents, ordered in 1997, have yet to arrive. The local SQA adviser could not have been more supportive - but she did spend much of her time apologising for the inefficiency of the authority.

Interestingly, we applied for the Investors in People award at the same time as we applied for SQA status: the former we obtained within two months, thought to be a record, whereas it took nearly a year to become an SQA centre - and that had everything to do with the SQA's attitudes and labyrinthine procedures. I was most unimpressed - this was not the exam board that I had known. It was like battling with fog. And I say nothing about the quality and clarity of the SVQ unit standards that have to be operated.

There are, I have deduced, two separate but related problems with the SQA. When the board and council merged to form the new autority, there were two quite different sets of experiences and cultures. But the differences were not only procedural: there were and are differences of substance and attitudes towards assessment. The SEB had always dealt with terminal and external assessment. Even that part of the revised Higher involving a folio had a final fixed submission date and is externally assessed.

Modules, on the other hand, the province of Scotvec, are internally assessed and externally moderated. Schools, in the absence of anything for candidates not really suited to Highers, latched on to such modules, the assessment procedures of which were unfamiliar and at times unsuitable.

Not only that, but the modular approach, so well suited to further education candidates, did not translate easily into the secondary sector. Whereas it is fairly easy to break down and assess the skills required to maintain and develop customer services, it is an entirely different affair to adopt the same approach to assessing the skills required to understand and appreciate Hamlet.

Yet this is the very approach on which Higher Still is founded. When I read the national course specifications for English and Communication (Higher), I detected the dead hand of Scotvec. A modular approach with an over-emphasis on internal assessment, a watered-down terminal examination, the specimen question papers which used previous Higher papers (why, after all this time, couldn't the Higher Still team devise something a little more original?), and endless performance criteria that are so redolent of the SVQ approach, and not all of which are all that helpful. For example, where the overall quality goes beyond the criteria for grade C but falls short of grade A, it will attain grade B. Others draw distinctions that are obscure at best, confusing at worst.

Higher Still removes inspiration from English teaching and replaces it with arid, stultifying assessment. The very word "communication" is a betrayal of the thinking that underpins the course - a dilution of the standard of excellence for which Higher English used to be renowned.

The introduction of Unit 3 (individual presentation, group discussion and critical listening) will delight the extrovert, worry the self-effacing and be yet another hostage to fortune. However, the FE colleges will be delighted.

As I see it, these two problems - the administrative shambles that is the SQA and Higher Still - are, given the status quo, inextricably connected. Teachers and other professionals in education are dissatisfied with Higher Still. Possibly even more worryingly, parents are suspicious of it and prospective employers will give it no credibility.

The only way out of this mess, the only radical solution, is to demerge the boards before it is too late and let Higher Still be reviewed and revamped under the aegis of the old SEB.

David Cockburn is an educational consultant.

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