Problems in Higher Still could hit next year's exam diet, an education director has warned. David Henderson reports
FUNDAMENTAL flaws in the Higher Still programme, including the timing of the exams themselves, could yet derail some subjects next summer despite ministerial action to cut the transfer of data between schools and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, a leading director has warned.
Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, last week cautioned his 26 secondary heads that subjects examined towards the end of the 2001 diet could be affected in a similar way to last summer.
"Some teachers are making a clear prediction that some exams will not work in certain subjects because they're too late in the exam diet. No matter how much you pay the markers, you're not going to get the papers completed in time because people are not going to come in during their holidays in the middle of July to finish them off," he said.
Examining teams might be reluctant to interrupt their holidays to carry out the necessary work.
Mr O'Neill, a member of the Higher Still liaison group and a long-standing critic of the way the reforms have been pushed through, favoured a return to the traditional exam pattern to allow time at the end of the session. He accepted that would mean shortening the 160 hours allowed for each course.
Outlining several major concerns, Mr O'Neill said no one had yet come up with a solution to the exam diet which was placing "huge stress" on youngsters. Some had to sit two exams on the one day or key exams on consecutive days.
North Lanarkshire's raising achievement agenda, which highlights end of term activities, was also put at risk by the later exam timetable.
Mr O'Neill suggested redrafting the length of courses. The 40 hours beyond the 120 hours for teaching the three units was for assessment and ensuring teachers were given time to deliver in an educational way, for example, by using group work, role play and discussion.
"If the 40 hours for additional activities became 20 hours, that's a month. You could start the exam diet earlier and finish earlier. You would not have to have exams on the same day, spread them better and you have more time at the end of term for activities to enhance school life," he said.
It would help markers to complete on time and allow marking teams to get to schools before the holidays.
"If this is not worth exploring, I want somebody else to explain how they're going to solve this problem," he continued.
The director backed the decision by Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, to restrict the transfer of data between schools and colleges and the SQA but described it as "only the first step". The authority would only be informed if a pupil had not succeeded in passing a unit.
Internal assessment should be retained in schools and should be available to support appeals, estimates and on-going decisions about course levels.
In an average secondary of around 900 pupils, there were an estimated 6,000 transfers of information or bits of paper across departments to the SQA. "That's a lotof unnecessary data the SQA does not need. It clogs up their system and means some poor assistant head has to collect a lot of paperwork," he added.
The appearance of the units on the final certificate was also of doubtful value. Mr O'Neill further suggested passing two out of three units should be enough to progress to the external examination and receive a course award.
"We now have an exam system that seeks out weakness rather than rewards strength and puts extra hurdles in front of young people attempting to achieve qualifications. I think we've got the worst of all case exam systems. A lot of young people, particularly those at Intermediate I and II, the less able, have a hurdle there but have the ability to get 60 per cent in the exam," he said.
Mr O'Neill criticised the National Assessment Bank tests, which principal examiners had told him were less than helpful to the final examination and of little use in the appeal process. There was an argument for grading them as a genuine preparation for the exam.
"Young people found the exam a shock on the basis that they passed the NABs and thought they were doing really well. The degree of difference came as a surprise. If the NABs were graded they could become virtually prelims and give an accurate reflection of how you were going to do."
Dan Sweeney, head of quality development, emphasised there had never been a national debate about assessment. "We are now paying the penalty," he said.
Unit assessments were a motivational force but added to young people's stress. "There is a sense in which young people find themselves on an assessment treadmill. You could have 38 formal assessments a year," Mr Sweeney said.
Rosemary McDonald, head of St Aidan's High in Wishaw, said Higher Still had been introduced partly to end the two-term dash to the exam but even Intermediate pupils were following the five Higher pattern. "The enjoyment and quality of experience is being lost in endless rounds of assessment," she said.
Peter Mulheron, head of St Maurice's High, Cumbernauld, said pupils were not coping with the stress while the pressures on staff were "unbelievable" because of the amount of marking required.
Timing of unit assessments, Mr Sweeney continued, was significant. This was particularly true in modern languages, where teachers reported pupils only picked up the required levels of competence in February or March and opted to run the tests then. But that created problems for a school planning its calendar.
Some teachers were also running pre-unit tests almost as a prelim and adding to the assessment load. "Three unit assessments and a prelim exam means that pupils bounce from one assessment to the other and it's particularly bad in December and January," Mr Sweeney continued.
Some departments were questioning the NABs, deciding they were useless and making up their own. "It's a time-consuming business," he said.
Mr O'Neill further recommended that ministers instruct the SQA to ditch the development of group awards and the second exam diet. Core skills should be re-examined.
Leader, page 16