U-turn on exams policy

5th November 2010 at 00:00
The Government will back freedom of headteachers to allow early exam presentation

Education Secretary Michael Russell has declared a policy U-turn and decreed that allowing pupils to sit their exams early is neither "forbidden" nor "wrong".

This reverses the position of Fiona Hyslop, the former Education Secretary, who effectively issued a blanket veto on early presentation under the new curriculum and qualification regime. She argued that the broad, general education planned for S1-3 as part of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) did not permit early exam presentation. This was backed by HMIE.

This week, however, Mr Russell told The TESS that there was "no barrier" to early presentation. "The interpretation that this is forbidden is wrong," he said, indicating his backing for greater headteacher autonomy.

He acknowledged that early presentation was not for everyone and many headteachers did not support it, but he accepted that there were some within the education community who wanted to pursue that option.

Mr Russell referred to a meeting he had held with parent councils in Falkirk where parents had been "very keen" on early presentation for both academic and non-academic children, but told him they believed the Government had said it could not happen under CfE.

"It is a matter for the school," he confirmed, adding that headteachers had the flexibility and autonomy to do what they felt suited their community.

The most high-profile case of a school presenting its entire S3 year group for Standard grades, and extending the choice of academic and vocational subjects for S4-6 pupils, is Kirkcudbright Academy. An evaluation by Glasgow University of the school's "curriculum flexibility project" found the experiment had delivered "sustained improvements in standards", a better staying-on rate and "an impressive breadth of opportunities second to none in Scotland".

Mr Russell said: "How could I be against what has happened at Kirkcudbright Academy, particularly when my father was once a teacher there?"

He added: "The requirement to deliver a broad education under CfE might imply you would have to think very carefully before narrowing option choices too early. In those circumstances, there was a view that it didn't fit in well with CfE. But it is not forbidden or wrong."

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, expressed his dismay. He said he believed the Government circular counselling against early presentation, except for a few individual pupils for whom it was deemed appropriate, was still in existence. "I would be concerned and disappointed if there was a view that it should be disregarded," he said.

Mr Smith argued that early presentation did not sit comfortably with the underpinning philosophy of CfE - that it should reduce the time wasted on jumping through certification hoops and encourage pupils to bypass exams.

Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, also opposed early presentation. "It is not just about academic ability," she commented. "It is also about maturity."

And last month, the head of the biggest exam board in England, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, Andrew Hall, expressed concern about the "relative immaturity of the answers and the lack of depth and understanding" displayed by English pupils who were being presented early for GCSE.

But Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, interpreted Mr Russell's stance as a sign that he was prepared to grant heads greater autonomy.

"I think he is being realistic and supportive of a more flexible, autonomous delivery of the curriculum, but also in the context of a changing scene. Where the assessment process is different, the term `early presentation' does not mean the same as it did a few years ago."

Brian Miller, head of Dalziel High in Motherwell, welcomed Mr Russell's comments. His pupils, parents and teachers all "loved" early presentation. His school's Standard grade results had gone up dramatically under early presentation - and the Higher results had also improved, as pupils now had two years to gain depth and breadth in their learning.

Jon Reid, head of Larbert High near Falkirk, said he was awaiting confirmation that he could go ahead and enter an entire cohort for early presentation. He might then put his current S1 class forward to sit their Standard grades in S3 in 2013, the last year they will be offered; the new Nationals 4 and 5 and Highers would be available to senior pupils from 2014.

His decision would depend partly on advice from HMIE and School Leaders Scotland, Mr Reid said.

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