'Study, study, study; exams, exams, exams'

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Winter diets of exams and greater use of assessment are a cause for concern for many teachers. Henry Hepburn reports

Teachers fear the proposed changes to qualifications will increase the pressure on pupils to perform in exams and tests, making the latter years of school a complex hotchpotch of assessment.

Scottish Government roadshows have shown widespread support for the proposed move towards more generalist timetables from S1-3, but there are concerns about the implications for S4-6.

Ideas such as winter diets of exams and greater use of graded unit assessments are dividing opinion. Many teachers are worried there will too much of an assessment burden, as well as logistical headaches when timetables are drawn up.

A potential schism between the lower and upper years of secondary was identified in group discussions at the final roadshow of five, held in Ayr last week. The generalist approach to S1-3 had widespread support, but some felt it would be closer in spirit to primary schools' work than the later years of secondary; there was even a suggestion that it be renamed P8-10.

Keith Webster, a depute head at Troon's Marr College who has just started a secondment with South Ayrshire Council as a quality improvement officer, was concerned that the proposals risked "intensifying the assessment burden for S4-6" and creating a "greater split" between the lower and upper years. "There is a danger the enjoyment of a broad general education will end at the end of S3, and then schools will be under pressure," he said.

Ian Fisher, depute head of Williamwood High in East Renfrewshire, was concerned about the potential logjam of widespread early presentation: "I can't see how winter diets can be timetabled."

Caroline Amos, headteacher of Paisley Grammar, was uncomfortable with the Government's assertion that the Higher would remain the "gold standard" form of assessment, which she felt jarred with inclusion. "The gold standard for everyone is going to be slightly different," she said.

A group of six S6 pupils who spoke at the event made it clear that the intense pressure of studying for Highers did not sit easily with attempts to broaden the school experience through A Curriculum for Excellence. The pupils - from Ayr's Kyle Academy, Kirkcudbright Academy and St Matthew's Academy in Saltcoats - said they were able to make a big contribution to school life outwith their studies before and after S5, perhaps by leading extra-curricular activities. In stark contrast, S5 was summed up by one girl as "study, study, study; exams, exams, exams".

A pupil at Kirkcudbright Academy said that sitting Standard grades in S3 had made the jump to Higher less steep, although there was disagreement about the merits of increasing pupils' responsibility for their own learning at an earlier age. There were objections to being "spoon fed" through Standard grades, but also a feeling that younger pupils were too immature to take control themselves.

Pupils had mixed views about plans to introduce literacy and numeracy qualifications. Concern was expressed that, if they were only taken by less academic pupils, it could lead to them being stigmatised. Others said they had learned about literacy and numeracy at primary school, and that there was little point in making all pupils take the same qualifications.

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