Subjects - Standard grades

29th August 2008 at 01:00
As the Government consults on a new qualification, teachers assess the strengths and weaknesses of Standard grade courses in their subjects

Alison Reid, Principal teacher of music, Portlethen Academy, Aberdeenshire

In Standard grade, pupils can perform a piece deemed to be at General level but if they do it well they can achieve a Credit pass. Vice versa, if they choose a tricky piece they are hoping to show off with, and do not give such an accomplished performance, they can be marked down.

It's a sliding scale which gives pupils the chance to progress and reflects how hard they have worked. It motivates and encourages progression. Anything which comes in to replace Standard grade should retain that.

They should also keep the performing exam in front of a visiting examiner but should keep it the way it is at Standard grade, with pupils having to prepare and perform an entire programme, and not this nonsense of reciting, which has been introduced in National Qualifications, where the examiner listens to snatches of pieces and not even every piece. It is not a nice experience for the pupils. It is a money-saving exercise and is jarring and unsettling for them.

At the moment, for Standard grade listening, you feel like you are churning out a musical dictionary - everything from Baroque to folk music. The concepts need to be thinned out and more focus brought to it.

The other thing is musical literacy - reading and writing music and recognising musical symbols and shapes. That has made its way into Intermediate 1 and 2 and I think there should definitely be a place for it.

Duncan Toms, Principal teacher of history, Bearsden Academy, and president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History

The quite polarised debate among history teachers over whether to replace Standard grade with Intermediate (the majority is sticking with the former) has barely had time to adapt to the recent announcement that a new exam will replace both. Standard grade allows for a more detailed study of fewer topics (all from modern history), whereas Intermediate allows for a greater variety of topics from different eras. This means that, while Standard grade topics can sometimes drag, Intermediate courses can look like patchwork. Many are also influenced by the absence of a World War I option at Intermediate, which most do at Standard grade.

Intermediate assessment, especially NABs, is also perceived by many as more difficult or problematic and less effective than Standard grade assessment. Opinions also vary on which, if any, is a better preparation for Higher. Many regretted the decision to abolish the Standard grade investigation and welcomed the introduction of an element of individual research in the form of the Int 2 extended response. Others, while supportive of individual research, point to the difficulties with extended writing at this level, which means that it has not been as successful as the Higher extended essay.

Any new course will need to provide a balance of Scottish, British, European and world history and offer a good variety of options from different eras to enable schools to play to localteacher strengthsinterests. It will also have to dovetail with A Curriculum for Excellence and Higher in terms of both content and assessment - and be properly resourced.

Carolyn McInnes, French teacher, Eastbank Academy, Glasgow

The main problem with Standard grade, from the point of view of kids who go on to take Higher, is the writing element. Pupils submit three pieces they've written under exam conditions, but first they do drafts and go over these with teachers. Then they just memorise what they're going to write.

It's fine for pupils who are going to stop at Standard grade, but those who are continuing with the language sometimes get a bit of a shock at Higher, where there's quite a lot of writing. I do some tutoring for Standard grade, and some parents feel the pupils don't seem to understand what they're writing.

The rest of Standard grade is fine - reading and listening are quite testing, and what pupils have to do to get a Credit award is really difficult.

Rona Mackintosh, Acting principal teacher of English, Fortrose Academy

For the last three years, we've only offered Standard grade at Foundation and General level. We're quite fond of Standard grades in a way, but Intermediate prepares kids who are academic far better for the Higher.

We have retained Standard grade because Intermediate is too academic and dry for some pupils. Standard grade also offers more of an opportunity to hone writing skills, and universities and colleges say they're looking for writing skills.

Intermediate courses are really good for analytical skills; less so for writing skills, particularly creative writing. Unfortunately, writing has become marginalised at Higher, and both Higher and Intermediate are weighted almost entirely towards analysis.

The thing about Standard grade is that a lot of it is folio-based, which is great for pupils who need to take their time or find they're totally overawed in an exam situation. But it's not a good preparation for Higher, where the emphasis is on analytical skills and being able to perform on the day.

Standard grade can give skewed results: very diligent pupils can draft and redraft their work; and pupils can do well on the basis of their talk, but there is no talk element at Higher.

It's not good preparation for the Higher, but it offers a lot more opportunity for creativity.

Melanie Shepley, Principal teacher of modern studies and politics, Bearsden Academy, and chair of the Modern Studies Association

The Standard grade course provides a good variety of study themes, both national and international. For instance, it gives pupils an opportunity to look at the changing role of trade unions, what they do to represent people and how workers can participate in them, while from the international point of view, they can look at development issues in Africa. It's not too difficult for pupils to look at pressure group politics in the UK and then relate that to an international federation or a group such as Oxfam or Water Aid and its role in the politics of aid in Africa. Pupils can look at themes in isolation but also build links that allow them to build their understanding in a holistic way.

The other good aspect of Standard grade is that it teaches inquiry skills and the ability to take information from research or a numerical context. Given the explosion in information now available to everyone, that is a really critical skill for young people to develop.

Unlike Intermediates, there is no requirement to do NABs, that is, internal assessment - and that is a good thing, particularly for lower- ability pupils. The Intermediate courses don't cover such a broad spectrum of topics but they do articulate better with Higher. In the new qualification, I should like to see the best of both courses without the internal assessment, because I think it conflicts with initiatives such as co-operative learning and Assessment is for Learning.

Peter Bruce, Maths teacher, Perth Grammar

Foundation maths has been with us for nearly 25 years and it has not improved the numeracy of the lower-ability pupils. It is meaningless as a qualification. There is a need for numeracy but I question whether we need a separate external exam (one of the Scottish Government's proposals). Numeracy is arithmetic by another name and there is a need to distinguish between mathematics - shapes, symmetries and algebra - and arithmetic - calculations, fractions and areas. Arithmetic should be there for everybody, whereas mathematics should be an option.

At General, there needs to be more choice. Some of the candidates are going on to become plumbers or joiners - they don't need trigonometry. We need to be talking to the private sector and finding out the skills they want and give the youngsters more vocational-type training.

Credit Standard grade is a good qualification. For the brightest candidates, the problem-solving and reasoning questions are challenging and stretch them, but those struggling can still get a Credit award by getting a Credit in one part of the exam and a General in another. At Intermediate 2 these candidates would tend to fail, while the brightest would find Intermediate 2 very undemanding compared to Credit.

Stephen Allen, Principal teacher of computing, Airdrie Academy, North Lanarkshire

The strength of Standard grade, from the pupils' point of view, is that they get a great breadth of information. There's a lot of content that they can get into.

If you compare that with Intermediate 1 and 2 qualifications, their content is more specialised - it's almost as if you're going to university and you know exactly the path you're going down.

You see a much wider picture of the world of computing at Standard grade. A lot of the pupils are quite surprised at what they find out; they're seeing relationships that they've never seen before.

They're very, very familiar with technology like mobile phones, but they just see a phone, when it's actually a computer. They look at you as if you're mad when you say that, but then you explain that there are databases for addresses, and they start to see what you mean.

The language at Int 1 and 2 is far too advanced for a lot of kids - at Standard grade it's pitched at the right level.

The only drawback is that there seems to be a reluctance in Standard grade computing to keep up to date with technology, which is probably down to money.

I'm sad to see the Standard grade go, and I'm hoping that they bring in something that takes account of its good breadth of topics.

Rhona Goss, Principal teacher of sciences, Monifieth High, Angus

The fall-back position which Standard grade provides for pupils is very useful. At the start of S3, it's hard to predict whether a lot of pupils will get Credit or General. The mathematical level at the start of the physics course is taxing, so in S3 they might get a General but by S4, as they get more confident in maths, their physics grades can rise. If the situation was more akin to Intermediates, it would be all or nothing; if they do Intermediate 2 and don't get it, they get nothing.

Standard grade has managed to widen the appeal of physics because of its applications-led approach, such as taking something like telecommunications and then looking at the physics that underpins it.

I'd also like to see the strong practical element of Standard grade retained and, if anything, built on. Currently, practical work tends to be more about demonstrations - "look at this and observe it" - rather than pupils doing their own investigations.

There is no reason physics should not be accessible to all. At Standard grade, there is only Foundation science, not physics, chemistry or biology. There is no reason these subjects could not appeal to a wider range.

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