When two exams collide we will all feel the brunt

29th March 2013 at 00:00
Changes to the Higher courses mean the road ahead will be bumpy for every secondary teacher

Over three years ago, at a meeting for SQA appointees, I raised the issue of secondary departments taking up the option of continuing with the present Higher in session 2014-15, rather than offering the new Curriculum for Excellence Higher. The SQA guru was perplexed that any teacher would wish to present his National 5 students for the old and not the new, and even more astonished to discover support for this option from the majority of teachers present.

As such, I was delighted to read Morris Simpson's diary last month (TESS, 15 February) and to discover the fictional Frank O'Farrell uncannily expressing my views on a coherent rationale for staying with the present Higher in session 2014-15. For those who did not read the column, he stated: "So I can revisit my N4s and 5s and get them right second time around, use my present resources with the fifth year, then see the first exam for the new Higher before I teach it, so that I'll actually be ready for it. Unlike National 5."

It may seem strange to be discussing the implementation of the new Higher course and exam when the priority is N45. However, the successful implementation of N45 and the new Higher could both be jeopardised if subject departments have to fight "on two fronts" in session 2013-14.

We cannot suddenly begin in May 2014 the planning of the new Higher and begin teaching it in June. Where will secondary teachers find the time, resources and energy to engage in the "two campaigns" simultaneously? Obviously these pressures will not be experienced by our colleagues in East Renfrewshire, as their present S3 will sit Intermediates in 2014 and the present Higher in 2015.

Social subjects teachers in East Dunbartonshire Council (EDC) are at least better placed than their colleagues in other local authorities. We still have discrete departments and so, as principal teacher of modern studies, I can concentrate totally on one subject. I am aware of the stressful demands of faculty heads responsible for the implementation of the new courses in four subjects and with a much-reduced budget compared with the days when geography, history and modern studies were separate departments.

My head has done his best to limit the reduction of departmental budgets in this age of austerity. So we have had the funds to provide each Higher student with three textbooks and this has led to excellent Higher achievement by our students. It will be no surprise, therefore, that I wish to use these textbooks for another academic year and to present my students for an exam I trust and totally understand.

The further cuts to local authority expenditure in the period 2013-15 will inevitably lead to further real reductions in department budget over this period. The days of extra funding for new courses seem to be gone. So my priority between 2013 and 2015 will be to fund the new N45 courses. Educational publishers will be producing new textbooks for the new courses and I intend to purchase them (as a textbook writer, I favour textbooks). If I remain with the present Higher, I will not need to finance the new Higher until June 2015.

One of the weaknesses in the planning of the new qualifications has been the separation of course and assessment. I have the course design for the new Advanced Higher, but I am still waiting to receive a National 5 specimen exam paper.

Session 2013-14 will be the most demanding ever for all secondary teachers. We will need to deliver new content and new assessment methods, such as oral presentations and group activities, to test our students for unit assessments. How will we manage the Added Value Unit and cope with all students having to carry out an assignment investigations? How will we justify to parents at some point in S4 that their child will not be presented for N5 when the broad general education S3 profile highlights all their achievements but not their limitations?

Inevitably we will need to review, improve and modify our N45 courses for the following year. How will we be able to do this if we have to rush into delivering the new Higher exam with the added burden of "Investigation for All" at Higher?

We need an assurance from local authorities and headteachers that departments can continue, if they so wish, with the present Higher in June 2014. This will enable them to concentrate totally on teaching and assessing N45 students without worrying about the new Higher.

We present a significant number of S6 students for Higher modern studies and offer Higher politics to S6 only. It is in the interest of staff and students that we offer the present gold standard Higher courses in session 2014-15. We will also have to prepare for the new Advanced Higher to be introduced in 2015.

When two coursesexams collide, both could suffer. East Renfrewshire has avoided this possibility. By June 2015, we will have wiped away Standard grades, Intermediates, the present Higher and Advanced Higher - but at what cost to the concept of the reflective practitioner and well-being of secondary staff? We need a higher vision.

Frank Cooney is PT modern studies at St Ninian's High, Kirkintilloch, textbook author and writes in a personal capacity. He is a former subjects adviser for Grampian Region and head of social studies at Northern College.

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