Qualifications - Teachers swamped by exam 'tsunami'

14th February 2014 at 00:00
Critics call for moderation of new Nationals to be abandoned

Teachers who say they have been hit by "a workload tsunami" after the introduction of new Nationals are calling on Scotland's exam body to suspend quality control of the qualifications until next year.

The system of verification put in place by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) for the Nationals was "overkill", said Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union. With just 12 weeks to go until students sat their exams, "immediate and urgent action" was needed to reduce teachers' workload, he added.

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA), agreed that the process - designed to ensure that the new qualifications were delivered consistently by teachers across the country - should be abandoned.

Moderation information was taking too long to compile and was having to be submitted several times because of a lack of clarity over what was required, he explained.

"There is clearly a difficulty," he said. "Teachers are telling us they are spending hours compiling this stuff, and when they first submit, they find it's not what the SQA wanted. So more information has to be transmitted for a second and even a third time."

This is the latest in a series of complaints from schools about the SQA's handling of the introduction of the qualifications. Last year, headteachers criticised the quality of guidance about the Nationals issued by the SQA, saying that it was inconsistent and sloppily presented. They also hit out at the number of last-minute changes to qualifications.

Last month, Mr Flanagan said his union was witnessing "an unprecedented level of concern" about the SQA. And, in last week's TESS, the SSTA's preferred candidate for its vacant post of general secretary, Sheila Mechan, accused the SQA of being "dismissive, even cloth-eared" about anxieties over the new qualifications ("Steely contender shows her mettle", 7 February).

The EIS education committee has written to the SQA calling for the final round of moderation - due to begin next month - to be suspended. Schools seeking validation should be able to opt into the process but others ought to be able to abandon it altogether, Mr Flanagan told TESS.

"Standards have to be maintained, but what's happening is disproportionate. We would like the SQA to suspend verification for the remainder of this term," he said.

Mr Flanagan revealed the plans to call for a delay last week, at a rally in Edinburgh to tackle increasing teacher workload. He was responding to complaints from a secondary teacher who described the amount of evidence the SQA was asking for as "nonsensical". It could take up to 20 hours to gather data for just one course, she said.

The third and final round of verification for the Nationals is due to begin in March when the schools expected to take part will be notified. Schools will be asked to submit work from 12 candidates across Nationals 1 to 5 for each subject being moderated.

By the end of the school year, the SQA's intention is that every centre in the country - approximately 450 schools and colleges - will have been verified in at least one subject in each of 22 broad areas, including modern languages, English, maths and science.

External verification was a critical component of the quality assurance process, said SQA chief executive Janet Brown, in response to the call for it to be dropped. There was evidence "in many subjects and in many centres" of a sound understanding of the standards and good assessment practices, she added.

"We will continue to discuss verification with teacher associations and others to ensure that the process supports the maintenance of national standards while allowing teachers time to focus on coursework and exam preparation," she said.

There is growing disquiet among teachers about workload, with the EIS launching a campaign aimed at achieving "a meaningful and sustainable reduction". Of particular concern in primary schools were the administrative tasks that had sprung up around the new curriculum, including excessive forward planning and reporting, Mr Flanagan said.

At the secondary level, the unrelenting roll-out of Curriculum for Excellence had caused problems, he explained. "That has been part of the recipe for the workload tsunami that has hit our schools," Mr Flanagan told the Edinburgh rally.

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