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Why the exams dash could get frantic

All over the country, fifth and sixth-year pupils are gearing up for one of the biggest steps in their lives: their university applications. Early applications - for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science - are in and already young hopefuls are whipping themselves into a frenzy on the student forums. Most other subjects, including education, have until January.

The whole business of applying to university is becoming more complex. It's not enough to fill in your Ucas form and write your personal statement. Increasingly, you are expected to have work experience, volunteering and a portfolio of extra-curricular achievements. Robert Gordon University and NHS Grampian in Aberdeen have streamlined their approach, giving youngsters a taste of nursing through a week-long autumn school at their state-of-the art training centre (p18-21). Teenagers from Perth High to Meldrum Academy have familiarised themselves with the hospital environment, from bedmaking to midwifery.

What pupils don't realise, of course, is the effort invested in them by careers teachers, SQA exam setters and markers, Ucas officials and university admissions officers. The enormity of the process is only recognised when a part goes awry, as with the SQA debacle in 2000. But Scotland's exam body has regained its authority through a revised system of checks and balances, marks and calibrations, to such a degree that Robert Quinn can state on its behalf: "We're comfortable with where we are with attainment - you don't see the grade inflation you see down south" (News Focus, p12-15).

This year's new writing folio for Higher English has stunned markers with the quality it has yielded, and the first mandatory Scottish paper in history has revealed "good breadth and knowledge". An SQA process called "finalisation", which looks at borderline candidates, has also attracted interest from England.

But there's no time for complacency. As SQA assessors published their reports, Ucas launched a review of its admissions process (p5). One aim is to make it more streamlined and cost-effective. Cost, of course, is a crucial factor as government funding for universities is slashed and the majority of UK students face soaring fees. But the implications for the Scottish exams system could be horrendous.

Schools could face the introduction of new National exams in summer 2014 and have to cope with a new schedule to meet Ucas's goal of "post- qualifications applications" in 2016. If that means bringing SQA exams forward to Easter in order to finish them by late May, so that Ucas can have nine weeks to process all its applications, current complaints of a two-term dash for Highers will seem trivial and arguments over one or two- year Highers will be history. All Highers might have to be sat over 18 months. How much testing can one exam system stand?

gillian.macdonald@tess.co.uk.

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