Writing is on the wall

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Like many English departments across Scotland this year, our Higher results were simply dire; in fact the worst in the school's history and, for the first time ever, all our appeals were rejected. However, we are not in any way exceptional, as many other departments have had a similar experience.

As a PT English with over 30 years' experience, I think I know what a pass in Higher English looks like, but the Scottish Qualifications Authority now seem to be telling me otherwise. While I accept that I could be wrong with some of the appeals, I don't think I am wrong about them all and many of my colleagues in other schools are saying exactly the same. We haven't changed our criteria, but something drastic certainly has changed in the way Higher English is being assessed.

No wonder many students are feeling angry and disappointed and no wonder many English teachers up and down the country have lost all confidence in the SQA. The present Higher Still arrangements are simply unsustainable and almost everyone in the profession I have spoken to agrees.

Everything depends on a final exam and no real credit is given for course work, especially writing. This problem is particularly acute at Intermediate levels, an area that received no attention whatsoever in recent press coverage.

Indeed the Intermediate situation is simply scandalous. Nothing highlights more clearly that Higher Still simply isn't working than the fact that the majority of Intermediate 1 and 2 pupils who start the course are failing to complete it or pass the exam, while the minority who do manage to pass have little or no prospect of progressing to the next level, one of the key principles behind Higher Still.

Even allowing for the fact that many of these youngsters are not among our most motivated students, it is surely unacceptable that the S5-6 English experience of most of them is now one of lower achievement and failure.

However, there is no doubt that the present assessment system is failing far too many pupils at all levels, mainly by giving far too much weight to the parts of the course which pupils have always found most difficult, especially interpretation and language skills.

I believe that the SQA must now listen to the calls from the profession to reintroduce a piece of coursework writing as one the assessment elements: first, because I feel that is simply outrageous that writing should not be assessed on its own; second, because this would reflect a more balanced assessment of the range of English skills; third, because I believe strongly in the principle of giving pupils some credit for genuine work they have produced in class.

Furthermore I think the transition from Standard grade, with its two-thirds internal assessment, to Higher is also seriously flawed. While I would certainly not wish to see Standard grade English removed, as I believe the course is one of the success stories in Scottish education, I have long felt that the assessment gives far too much weight to the internal components, thereby placing many pupils at a level they cannot cope with in S5. It certainly does not preparethem for the shock treatment of 100 per cent external assessment at Higher Still.

John A Hodgart PT English Garnock Academy North Ayrshire

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