Testing times

8th June 2007 at 01:00
Sitting exams is nightmare enough without doing up to 12 hours at a time, as Stornoway pupils did

PUPILS AT a Western Isles school had to work up to 12-hour days and stay overnight with teachers after Gaelic exams clashed with other subjects.

The exams on Friday, May 25, coincided with others in accounting and finance, German, PE, and religious, moral and philosophical studies. That caused headaches for several pupils at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, where Gaelic is more popular than French. Several exams had to be rescheduled for certain pupils.

The school has written to the Scottish Qualifications Authority expressing concern that pupils sitting Gaelic are being given a raw deal. But it has received what Kevin Trewartha, the headteacher, described as a "bland"

response, promising to look at the situation again next year.

Mr Trewarth said a small number of pupils had to sit exams almost non-stop from first thing in the morning into the evening, finishing as late as 8.30pm, which effectively resulted in a 12-hour day. Two Standard grade pupils had to stay overnight with a teacher and were allowed no contact with friends or family, so they had to be supervised continuously for about 24 hours.

There were also concerns that Gaelic learners who sat Gaelic and German exams on the same day - facing up to nine papers in quick succession - found it difficult to switch suddenly from one language to the other.

Mr Trewartha said: "Friday - and into Saturday - really was the worst day.

It was hard for the staff to make sure that everything was covered and there were pupils who couldn't even relax between exams - the pressure was on all day."

He added: "It's not the first year we've had issues like this. The feeling is that pupils do get a rough deal because of the way Gaelic is timetabled.

It's the majority language here, even compared to French. Although Gaelic is a small minority in Scottish terms, in a school like this it's quite a popular exam."

Nevertheless, Mr Trewartha stressed that pupils had reacted stoically to sitting a string of exams in quick succession. "They accepted that was what they had to do, but obviously it's not ideal. They maybe felt it wasn't fair but, at that age, they just say 'this is what it will have to be to get the exams done'."

Anne Morrison, the school's business manager and one of its SQA co-ordinators, said: "It's a problem for us every year. This year, we had a couple of pupils who really had a tough time."

It was particularly testing for Standard grade students to sit several exams in a row with only a lunch and "15-minute breaks here and there", she said, because it is their first year doing "real" exams - "it's a bit of a shock to the system."

A spokesman for the Scottish Qualifications Authority said: "We are sorry that these things happen. We try to minimise it as much as possible but, given the circumstances we are working in, it's almost inevitable. We have to squeeze 500-plus exams into a six-week period.

"However, we are programmed to see if we can find an even smarter way next year. Gaelic will be looked at, along with all the other subjects."

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