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For what it's worth

This year, I have been finding teaching National 4 English to be one of the most difficult assignments I have ever had. Despite reading and rereading the documents from the Scottish Qualifications Authority and seeking advice from myriad sources about verification and added-value units, I still couldn't get my head around this new qualification.

I was beginning to accept that there might be some truth in that saying about old dogs and new tricks when finally I had a revelatory moment. Yes, the exam board really is expecting so little evidence of ability from pupils in return for a nationally recognised qualification.

The introduction of each new system over the past decade or so has come with an incremental drop in requirements, making it much easier to get a pass in English. There can be little surprise that National 4 English had a 100 per cent pass rate last year when you consider that one 300-word report - which can be written with the aid of a spellchecker - covers literacy and critical evaluation, and a talk covers the rest of the course requirements.

The inclusion of the added-value unit pushes the word count over 1,000, but compares unfavourably with Standard grade, for which pupils had to write five folio pieces plus an essay under exam conditions. Even the much-maligned Access 3 required students to read and evaluate a couple of pieces of literature to pass.

Further up the scale, the new Highers and National 5s are still overly helpful to those being assessed. A canny teacher will prepare pupils so they have the two pieces of Scottish text they are being examined on sitting in front of them, reducing the need to memorise quotes. We can actually quantify how the English exam is becoming easier: students may have 15 fewer minutes to complete the close-reading paper (now snappily titled "Reading for understanding, analysis and evaluation") but the number of questions has been halved, if the specimen paper is a reliable guide.

Furthermore, increasing the value of the folio by 10 per cent means that Higher pupils can collect three-tenths of their overall mark before they even enter the exam hall. Strangely enough, the university lecturers I know don't complain about the lack of knowledge of Scottish literature when evaluating new students; rather it is the lack of grammar and spelling ability that makes them wince.

Come August we may have positive headlines about the record-breaking numbers of passes at A grade in English, but in reality I fear a devalued set of qualifications. In the not too distant future, rather than upping the entrance requirements beyond five A passes, our universities may well seek to set their own entrance exams - or even encourage schools to gain qualifications from exam boards outside Scotland.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher in Glasgow

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