Damning Nationals report stokes tensions with SQA

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As an independent report calls for ‘unsustainable’ over-assessment of the new National examinations to be tackled urgently, teachers have again raised fears about workload as examination reform continues. Sam Phipps reports on the deepening row.

Teachers have started the 2014/15 session at loggerheads with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) for failing to take any responsibility for the “huge workload burden” imposed by the introduction of National exams this summer.

They say the SQA did not deliver the support needed and added to pressures by poor communication and late changes to units and assessments.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s biggest teaching union, highlighted the task this session of consolidating National 2 to 5 qualifications – which replace Standard grades – as well as delivering the new Highers. 

“If serious lessons are not learned from last year, the risks remain high,” he said.

Acrimony over the handling of the Nationals deepened with the publication last week of an independent report, commissioned by the Scottish government, which found “significant and unsustainable” levels of over-assessment in schools for the new qualification.

The review, by Kenneth Muir, chief executive of the General Teaching Council of Scotland, concluded: “This increase in assessment was not intended and requires to be addressed at both national and local level.”

It called on the SQA to cut this testing to “appropriate and proportionate” levels and ease the administrative load on teachers. Councils and senior education officials must provide teachers with better classroom support and schools need to be more flexible about when pupils take exams, in line with the aims of the new Curriculum for Excellence. 

Mr Muir said: “Introducing new qualifications is always a complex, time-consuming and challenging process. What is important is that we continue to learn from issues that arise and build on the good practice seen in introducing ... the new qualifications.”

Michael Russell, the education secretary, wrote to schools: “It is vital we learn from our experiences. The national education bodies are already taking steps to implement these recommendations and will continue to support teachers and schools throughout the year ahead.”

However, Mr Flanagan of the EIS criticised the review for its reluctance to blame the SQA directly.

He said: “The glaring weakness in the report is the shallow analysis of the experience of the past session. EIS members were very clear the SQA had failed to deliver the level of support which schools needed.

“Late changes to assessments, poor communication and lack of professional support have contributed greatly to the workload pressures experienced in schools.”

If there was a degree of over-presentation as a result of schools adopting too cautious an approach, Mr Flanagan said, it raised the question of why they considered that necessary.

He cited inadequate preparation time, poor communication of key messages from the Curriculum for Excellence Management Board and the SQA, and a lack practice papers and course material as contributory factors.

“There is a universal view among secondary teachers that last year’s workload pressures reached unprecedented levels, and that from a profession well used to dealing with excessive workload,” Mr Flanagan said.

The notion that because the National 5 results were sound, senior management figures could now discount these criticisms is “false thinking”, he added.

But Janet Brown, chief executive of the SQA, insisted the organisation had always been responsive to teachers’ concerns.

“SQA has successfully met, and continues to meet its milestones in the delivery and implementation of the new qualifications either on time or early. Throughout the process, SQA has kept all interested parties updated on progress and developments, provided training, advice and guidance – and listened to comments.”

She welcomed the findings of Mr Muir’s review, saying it identified actions for all partners involved in the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence.

“A number of the recommendations put forward by the review, such as modifications to the verification and quality assurance arrangements, are already being put in place, following SQA’s evaluation of the first year of the new qualifications. 

“These modifications will further improve the learning experience for pupils, teachers, parents, schools and colleges, while ensuring national standards are maintained.

“Curriculum for Excellence represents the biggest change to the Scottish education system for a generation. The need for continual development, working with all partners and those with an interest in our children’s education, is vital.”

Pupils and teachers should be congratulated for their hard work and strong results at all levels, she added.

 


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