Teaching bodies stand in opposite corners over National qualifications

28th January 2011 at 00:00
School Leaders Scotland welcomes new exams, while the SSTA dismisses internally-assessed National 4 as `Mickey Mouse'

Teachers' bodies are split in opinion over the handling of the new National 4 and National 5 qualifications.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has simultaneously been lauded for its "openness and transparency", and criticised for presiding over "by far the worst initiative" in decades.

Ronnie Summers, education convener for School Leaders Scotland, represents one view when he says: "There has been a great deal of work done behind the scenes to take account of the views of practitioners who will have to deliver pupils for qualifications.

"Gill Stewart (SQA qualifications development director) and her personnel have done very well in my book, in listening to what people have had to say, and I think SQA has created a strong structure of accountability via the curriculum area review groups and qualifications design teams."

He continued: "I also think they are to be commended for how open and transparent they are being in developing not just the literacy and numeracy qualifications, but subject qualifications in general."

Mr Summers was "far more comfortable with the principles and processes" built into Curriculum for Excellence than those which brought about Higher Still in 1999 and preceded the 2000 exams fiasco.

But Nationals 4 and 5 marked "by far the worst-handled initiative" in the 30-year career of Alan Taylor, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association's spokesman on Curriculum for Excellence.

Higher Still only went wrong on the assessment side, he said, while Standard grade was "awash with models" to guide teachers when introduced in the 1980s.

This year's S1s are the first cohort scheduled to take the new qualifications in 2013-14, and Mr Taylor is concerned that there are "no models out there" for teachers: "Most people I talk to are very unsure about what they're doing."

The SSTA, which was expelled from the CfE management board last year after threatening industrial action over implementation of the reform, is "totally opposed" to the proposal that National 4s be subject only to internal assessment.

"It's a cost-cutting measure - there is no educational value," Mr Taylor said. He predicted that employers would regard National 4 as a "Mickey Mouse" qualification.

Experience at Standard grade had shown that pupils tended to do better in internal assessment, he said. "We can all guess why that is," he added, citing pressure on teachers to drive up results.

The issue had not filtered through to parents yet, Mr Taylor believed, but once it did many would insist that schools put their children onto externally-assessed National 5 courses, even if they were more suited to National 4.

The Educational Institute of Scotland's Larry Flanagan said the publication of the National 4 and 5 course rationales and summaries would be welcomed by teachers, although the appearance of course specifications in the spring would be an even more important landmark.

But he is concerned that teachers will be hard-pressed to find time to reflect on and respond to these documents when they are already working "flat out" to introduce CfE experiences and outcomes.

Mr Flanagan was not, however, perturbed by the prospect of internal assessment only for National 4. The qualification was "essential" in ensuring that struggling National 5 candidates could fall back and present their work at the lower level. In any case, internal assessment would often, in practice, involve downloaded external assessment.

He believes that, while the SQA has done well in putting the qualifications together, there should be more guidance at a national level for teachers.

It was too early to say how the introduction of National 4 and 5 compared with that of new qualifications in the past, he added.

The SQA itself insists that it has never before introduced qualifications, groundwork for which began several years ago, in "such a transparent and public fashion".

Dr Stewart underlined that the two-month window for comments, to the end of March, marked an opportunity to influence the "broad direction of travel".

The new qualifications should bring about consistent assessment approaches across all subjects, she added. At the moment, half of Intermediate 1 and 2 courses comprise an equal mix of exams and coursework, and half are exam-based.



The first Highers were sat in 1888, allowing standardised inspection of the burgeoning secondary-school sector as rapid urbanisation rendered parish schools less relevant. They were intended as a tool for selection of prospective students, in an era when universities were under pressure to produce highly-employable graduates.

The establishment of the O (Ordinary) Grade in the 1960s was overseen by a new type of working party: a partnership between the Scottish Education Department and the teaching profession. Previous reforms to Scottish education had emerged entirely from the inspectorate or an advisory council.

The Standard grade was introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a greater emphasis on coursework and the application of knowledge than at O Grade. The new qualification was widely agreed to have achieved the aim of improving access to a broad curriculum, which had been sharply divided along lines of social class and gender.

The 1999 introduction of Higher Still resulted in a series of administrative and computer errors, which led to several thousand incorrect Higher and Intermediate certificates being sent out.

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