'Like swimming through semolina'

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Clarification called for as educationists in quandary over meaning of the assessment and qualifications framework for ACfE

Vague, imprecise, incoherent, "like swimming through semolina" - these are some of the terms being used to describe the assessment and qualifications framework proposed for A Curriculum for Excellence.

The assessment strategy document was four months behind schedule and was described by Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, as "so vague and imprecisely written that it is very difficult to work out what exactly is being proposed". He is one of the arch-critics of the curriculum reforms.

Another academic who is an expert on assessment strategies, Louise Hayward of Glasgow University's education faculty, was much kinder in her analysis. She described the document, published last week by Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop, as "a high-level paper" containing some "very positive signs", notably its emphasis on teachers' professional judgment.

But it is that very emphasis on teachers' professional judgment that appears to have caused such long and tortuous debate among members of the management board leading A Curriculum for Excellence.

Larry Flanagan, one of its members and the education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland, told a seminar at the Scottish Learning Festival last week that education authorities had wanted assessment to be used to monitor schools and hold them accountable.

The EIS argued that assessment's role was to support learning and teaching, not produce data for benchmark targets. Mr Flanagan insisted the unions' argument had "won out" against the education authorities - but there is consensus that more work has to be done on fleshing out what the standards in the 3-15 area of ACfE really mean.

Education authorities, for their part, believe they have achieved their aim of requiring data on standards at school, authority and national level and are content with the Education Secretary's pledge not to turn it into league tables.

But the reporting of standards within ACfE is emerging as another issue. Ms Hayward warns against schools trying to sub-divide the levels set out in ACfE. "They have got three or four years between some of them, so the idea that you can constantly be reporting back against them is inappropriate," she says.

Brian Cooklin, past president of School Leaders Scotland, is also concerned about how schools can report to parents on how their child is progressing, or not, under ACfE.

"You can't report on the four capacities. You couldn't say that a child was an unsuccessful learner, an unconfident individual, or whatever. You can't report on the outcomes and experiences because there are far too many. There needs to be clarity about what we want to tell parents about," he added.

Further confusion has been sowed by the language used to describe the levels of attainment expected to be achieved in S1-3 under ACfE - Levels 3 and 4 - and the fact that the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework's Levels 3 and 4 share the same names but cover a different stage - Access courses and Standard grade Foundation (Level 3) and Standard grade General and Intermediate 1 (Level 4), both of which are sat in S4.

One headteacher, confused by the terminology, thought the ACfE guidance meant that all his pupils should have completed SCQF Level 4 (Standard grade General or Intermediate 1) by the end of S3 instead of ACfE Level 4 and was planning accordingly.

It all points to the need for far greater support and clarification of what is happening, many argue.

Last week, the ACfE management board published a strategy paper on CPD - it will include seminars, workshops and courses, including the kind of courses already run by the Scottish Qualifications Authority for secondary teachers to improve their understanding of course changes. E-assessment will become an in-built feature of the system and teachers will be trained in how to deliver it.

The EIS warns that no funding figure has been attached to CPD and that, without sufficient resources, the timescale for implementing ACfE will slip.

Mr Flanagan wants teachers to be given another inservice day for ACfE this year - on top of the two already announced by Fiona Hyslop. He also urges teachers to challenge the "zealots and techno-crats" - by which he means school senior management staff and education authority officials - who, he says, are "getting it wrong".

He quotes the example of one authority primary adviser who told teachers to clear classrooms of tables and chairs to do "active learning", and secondary heads adopting the mantra that S1-2 should abandon subjects altogether and do one inter-disciplinary project after another.

"Teachers have to become confident in their own ability, so we can challenge misinterpretations that underline the key principles," he said.


Senior pupils at Kirkland High and Community College in Fife will be divided into classes based on their stage, not age, when the new curriculum is introduced.

Headteacher Ronnie Ross envisages S4-6s at the 620-pupil school - also home to 200 adult learners - will be placed together. They could be studying for one of the new National 5 qualifications (the replacement for Standard grade Credit and Intermediate 2) or a Higher.

The pupils will only be able to study a maximum of five subjects, but provided they reach Level 3 in literacy and numeracy, they will have freedom of choice. The only compulsory proposals are health and well-being and religious and moral education.

A dummy run before the summer break showed the school was able to deliver 94 per cent of choices. "Unless my authority says we have to offer eight subjects, this model will provide pupils with depth of learning and is right for us," said Mr Ross.

Emma Seith.

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