Thirty years ago, as comprehensives developed, Catholic schools were under threat, S4 exams were in turmoil and Glasgow secondaries were causing a rumpus. David Henderson dusts down the Scottish Education Department records
Teachers' views of students' abilities were questioned during the early years of the O grade by senior Scottish Examination Board officials, the 30-year records reveal.
In a memo, the convener of the SEB's examinations committee describes the internal assessments of many teachers as "a matter of some delicacy". Principal examiners reported that, each year, teachers' assessments were unreliable.
He said, in typical understatement: "Each year several of the Board's principal examiners have occasion to report that candidates - in not inconsiderable number - have been presented where performance shows that presentation was quite unjustified; and then many of the schools are so unsure of their own judgment that they are unable to respond to the Scottish Education Department's appeal to allow their able prospective Higher grade pupils to bypass the Ordinary grade in S1V; to what extent these circumstances reflect staffing difficulties the Board has no means of establishing."
The records show that the O grade was out of date ten years after it was introduced in 1962. More pupils were staying on and many more would do once the leaving age was raised finally to 16. The Educational Institute of Scotland was just one of the organisations pressing for exam change to give many more pupils a chance of some reward from their schooling.
The union called for a grading system similar to the Highers to replace the straight passfail system of the O grade that was originally designed to test the top 30 per cent of the S4 cohort.
Senior officials in the SED wanted to maintain the high standard of the O grade but were concerned that increasing numbers taking the exam could stretch the service. Then, as now, teachers were reluctant to give up their time to become SEB markers and examiners because of the increasing workload.
Norman Graham ( who was later knighted), the then head of the SED, floated the idea of using ' internal assessments as a replacement for external O grade exams in June 1971. However, he invited the SEB - before it moved its new home in Dalkeith - to consider introducing grades or bands and piloting them in English.
Senior government officials were also pushing schools to allow their brightest pupils to bypass the O grade. "There's no doubt that in preparing for and sitting the Ordinary grade examinations pupils lose time which could be spent more usefully," they contended.