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What do we do with the problem paper?

Higher English is in desperate need of change but there should be time for reasoned reflection, say Jenny Allan, Brian Boyd, Sheila Hughes, John Lawson and Raymond Soltysek

Once the dust settles on this year's Higher English results, there should be time for some reasoned reflection. The headline that screamed "13,000 pupils fail Higher English" ensured, once again, that the Jeremiahs could wring their hands over "falling standards" in literacy and, when it was revealed that some 8,000 candidates had scored less than 30 per cent, the whole examination came under attack.

It is never particularly helpful in such circumstances to say "we told you so", but many teachers, markers and teacher educators had been saying for some time that the present examination was not fit for purpose. Not only has it been changing almost annually for the past four years, leaving teachers bewildered and pupils uncertain, but the changes have not been the product of a measured, consultative process involving all of the stakeholders.

However, there are no villains in this piece. Ken Cunningham's 2001 review group's recommendation may have resulted in the present examination, but not all of its suggestions were taken up by Scottish Qualifications Authority. Remember, too, that workload was the key issue in 2001, and there was pressure from many quarters to reduce the burden on teachers.

While it is no one's fault, it has to be acknowledged that the present arrangements of internal assessment (NABs) and an external examination of close reading and critical essay have not, in fact, reduced the workload for pupils or teachers. Not only that, the current examination suits neither the borderline candidate nor the confident student.

There are some obvious issues to be addressed. The examination of writing skills, so valued by all of the end-users of the education system, by a simple pass fail in internal assessment, with no recognition in the final examination grading, seems bizarre. Whether it is by means of a folio, or an external essay paper, or a mix of the two, writing should surely be assessed in a way that recognises its importance. The folio allowed weaker candidates to compensate for marks lost in the close reading paper. The external essay paper allowed the confident writers to shine. A mix of the two might be a good compromise.

Talk is conspicuous by its absence. With Standard grade on the retreat and Intermediate 1 and 2 replacing it in many schools, it will not be long before oral skills are not assessed anywhere in the system. And if they are not assessed, will they continue to be taught as well or as thoroughly as at present? Given the demand from society for people who are good communicators, team workers and problem-solvers, it is surely unacceptable that talk is not to be assessed?

But what of the pupils who fail, and particularly those who fail badly? Well, there is no evidence that teachers are working any less conscientiously than before. Indeed, quite the reverse. Anecdotal evidence of burnout among teachers of Higher English (and other Highers) is widespread. The pupils, too, are working flat out. NABs ensure that there is no let-up in the pressure they are experiencing. If these two factors are constant, why the high failure rate. It is almost certainly true that some pupils who sat Higher English this year were unlikely to pass. For some the safety net of an A at Intermediate 2 would have been the incentive. For others, there must have been other explanations. There is no doubt that there is too much pressure on schools to maximise their passes.

Giving all Higher subjects six periods a week, with little time throughout the year to religious and moral education, personal and social education or physical education, is only one manifestation. Giving pupils "the benefit of the doubt" has always been a trait of teachers, but now it has to be agreed that the internal assessment system, designed in part to enable pupils and teachers to make realistic choices about level of presentation, does not appear to be working. The externally marked paper is clearly too difficult for many of the pupils being presented.

Michael Fullan has said that "problems are our friends". If the 2003 failure rate results in a full and positive consultation process, with teachers, parents and pupils (including those who sat Higher English this year), leading to an improved examination, then all is not lost. As the English division within the Jordanhill language education department, involved in pre-service and in-service work, we feel that we have a contribution to make to this debate.

As the late Robbie Robertson argued, we need an examination system that looks at the needs of young people in the 21st century, one that enables young people to display the skills they have developed, and one that recognises the various literacies - linguistic, global, political, technological and cultural - in which they need to be versed. The examination needs also to reflect the importance of thinking skills, of creativity and of communication.

The smokescreen of falling standards should not obscure the real issues.

There is no evidence that the level of difficulty of the 2003 paper is greater or less than that of the 1983 or the 1963 papers. Paring down the Higher English exam to three hours may have reduced the workload for invigilators, markers and the SQA, but has not resulted in valid examination of English skills.

What about an open book exam, where the ability to apply knowledge and understanding could be assessed? What about the assessment of talk in problem-solving situations? And how about creative writing which pushes candidates to use a range of genres?

All of these questions, and many others could be asked, and views sought.

It may take a little time, but it's too important simply to criticise or do nothing.

Jenny Allan, Brian Boyd, Sheila Hughes, John Lawson and Raymond Soltysek are on the staff of Strathclyde University's education faculty.

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