Scales tilt against S grade

19th August 2005 at 01:00
One of Scotland's most experienced educationists has advocated a reduction in external exams for courses before Higher to give pupils better progression through their secondary education.

Echoing concerns in the Scottish Executive, James McVittie, who retired at the end of last session as headteacher of St Ninian's High in East Renfrewshire, said he did not believe there was a need for external assessment at every stage of schooling.

A former member of the Howie committee which gave birth to Higher Still, and the first state sector head to ditch Standard grade in favour of Intermediate courses, Mr McVittie is to advise East Renfrewshire Council on implementation of the Executive's curriculum reforms.

In an interview with The TES Scotland, he said that, if the argument was accepted that the current volume of assessment was too great, and that most pupils now stayed on at school to sit Highers, then "at the stroke of a ministerial pen" the problem could be resolved by doing away with the requirement for all pupils to sit exams at Intermediate or Standard grade level.

Pupils doing courses before the level of Higher could have their work internally assessed and externally moderated, he suggested.

Mr McVittie's decision in 2002 to replace Standard grade with Intermediate courses drew criticism from some quarters because it meant that pupils who failed their external exam had nothing to show for their work - unlike Standard grade, which allows for Credit, General and Foundation levels so that all pupils leave school with some level of certification.

He said the Intermediate course in English was a better preparation for the next stage, and gave more time for writing and the technical aspects of English as well as a more rewarding experience in literature.

The results provided by Standard grade English should be taken with "a huge bucket of salt", Mr McVittie said. "I have been accused of using young people as guinea pigs but the courses are undoubtedly better."

This year's Higher cohort would be the first to have gone through the system since St Ninian's moved completely to Intermediate courses. "They have settled much more readily at the start of S5 because the system is the same and they are used to the language of Nabs," he said. "They are used to having to plan their work because of the timeline and the unit tests in October; they can't leave everything to the last minute."

Some Intermediate pupils had not done as well as hoped for last session, but he ascribed that difficulty to the fact that "parents who aspire for their children don't necessarily accept advice" and added: "I think we have been a bit firmer this year."

Mr McVittie said the reintroduction of a winter diet of exams was inevitable if curricular flexibility was to be meaningful. He suggested that senior pupils should be able to resit exams in key subjects in late summer before entry to university.

Access to e-assessment would have a growing impact on teachers' ability to assess progress in core skills or individual pieces of work, Mr McVittie predicted.

While welcoming the direction taken in the Executive's reform programme, A Curriculum for Excellence, Mr McVittie had concerns about its delivery. "I have no problem with the destination, but I would like to see the colour of their money and how they translate that into action," he commented.

"The sense I have is that all these things have needed to be addressed for many years, but I don't think they have ever addressed them. I am just a wee bit wary that what we will get is another bit of tinkering."

Unless the right structures were in place to deliver the objectives, Scotland might still finish up with "a fragmented curriculum".

Mr McVittie was also concerned that the proposals appeared to split the secondary curriculum into two parts - S1-S3 and S4-S6.

"As soon as you start drawing the line anywhere, you then begin not having the continuity and progression, and you may have pupils marking time in S3, waiting for the real work to happen in fourth year," he warned. "The malaise of S1-S2 might extend into S3."

Mr McVittie, who has admitted to being "a martinet", said that for a school to be effective it had to have "a coherent set of values, a belief in what its purpose is, a consistency across the school.

"If you get young people going from one department to another in secondary and there is one culture in one department and they get another culture in another department, then I think that the school can be divided within itself," Mr McVittie said.

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