Gill Stewart: New exams system will bear fruit

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The new National Qualifications being studied by S4 pupils this year are designed to equip young people with the wider range of skills they need to thrive in a ­modern economy.

In keeping with the ambitious aims of Curriculum for Excellence, the new courses seek to ensure young people leave school more able to analyse, interpret and apply knowledge and skills and to think for themselves.

This represents a big change in the way we teach and assess our young people and all change brings ­challenge – but also opportunity.

SQA understands that as we move through the first year of the new Nationals, teachers responsible for their delivery have real concerns – because they want the very best for their students.

SQA appreciates how hard teachers are working to do this and is delivering high levels of support. Working in partnership with teachers, schools and local authorities to deliver the new qualifications successfully is SQA’s key priority over the coming weeks and months. SQA is listening to teachers’ feedback, identifying where additional support is needed – and offering extra help where necessary.

Alongside support being provided by Scottish Government and Education Scotland, SQA has already ­provided a significant amount of material – course arrangements, ­Specimen Question Papers and coursework and assessment materials for all 95 National 4 and National 5 qualifications.

There have already been almost 300 different events delivered to 15,500 teachers and lecturers across Scotland. Of these, almost 150 focused on specific subjects and were delivered to 7500 teachers and lecturers. In addition, SQA has trained more than 2000 “nominees” put forward by local authorities, independent schools and colleges to attend special training about the standards of the new ­qualifications. Nominees share their knowledge of best practice and national standards for the new ­qualifications – especially around how to assess candidates doing the new National courses – with colleagues in their schools and colleges.

More events are planned by SQA in response to teacher feedback during the first stage of the “verification” process for the new qualifications. Verification ensures teachers are assessing candidates to the national standard. It does not mean schools across Scotland do things exactly the same way – one of the central aims of Curriculum for Excellence is to allow more flexibility so teachers can shape lessons and assessments to suit their students. Verification looks at the different ways candidates have been assessed across Scotland – and ensures all assessment approaches are meeting national standards.

I understand the concerns of teaching unions, as outlined by the SSTA’s Alan McKenzie last week. Everything SQA is doing is designed to tackle these concerns and to cut bureaucracy, not increase it, freeing up teachers to do what they do best – teach.

It is important to note the voice of Scotland’s senior teachers in this debate. Ken Cunningham of School Leaders Scotland accepts there are always teething problems with major changes to qualifications, but says: “The preparation, consultation (for the Nationals): there’s been more than I can ever remember. The amount of effort that has gone into this knocks the others into the corner.”

Over the next few weeks, SQA will add to this effort, hosting more events that will promote good assessment approaches, boost confidence and provide teachers with further support.

Alan McKenzie asks us to listen carefully to teacher concerns. SQA is listening Alan, and will continue to listen – and act on what we hear. SQA and the teaching unions all want our young people to get the best start in life from the new qualifications – so let’s continue working together to achieve that.

• Gill Stewart is director of qualifications development at the SQA