No wonder teachers ‘are on their knees’

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Your reporting and editorial regarding the new/old Higher exams (28 January), though mostly accurate, 
demand some insider comment, analysis and recent historical perspective. Having taught in science departments in state secondary schools for almost four decades, I feel qualified to offer my view.

The embryonic Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was inspirational and aspirational. Its development may have staggered but it never stalled. Up to Secondary Year 2 (S2), teachers had little argument with its ethos.

It is ironic, however, that for two decades I’ve listened to informed opinions that S2 was a wasted year, with pupils treading water. Accelerated learning paths were promoted by these same opinions, resulting in early presentation to national exams.

This, in my view, was nonsense. The same informed sources now paradoxically expound the broad general education into S3, but water is no longer trod. How fickle are opinions when careers are involved?

But we’re here now, the second year of presentation at National 4 and 5, “more broadly based and less focussed on assessment”.

To pass National 4 in one of biology, physics or chemistry, pupils must jump through 23 assessment hoops, failure in any one of which will result in overall fail; but after suitable remediation, any failed aspect, or five or six, or 16, can be reassessed.

Is it any wonder that teachers are “on their knees” (according to an official report from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers), probably praying for divine intervention.

One of my more cynical S4 pupils refers to the Curriculum for Assessment (CfA) while another said that he spends most of his time either preparing for assessments or doing assessments.

National 4 is internally assessed: teacher teaches the course, teacher decides how and when to assess, teacher acts as assessor then teacher is judged by powers that be on how good they are, by how many pupils pass the assessment.

Would you go out on the streets if driving was tested this way?

You report that “only a third of pupils will sit the new science Higher… which takes in biology, chemistry and physics”.

There is no science Higher, old or new. There are three separate Highers: biology, chemistry and physics.

Worried that the old and new Highers should be regarded as equals? Don’t be concerned: marks for grades are mobile. The same percentage of candidates will get A-passes, B-passes, etc, in the new exams as in the old exams, whatever the difference in raw scores.

How do you think pass rates remain relatively constant each year despite each year’s exams being different?

Your editorial was astute, but to imply that some teachers/schools were more able than others to make the transition earlier to the new Highers is to ignore the fact that macho posturing by some local authorities and their education officers forced some teachers/schools into adopting the new exams early, against their better judgment.

Also, it was wrong to suggest that science subjects were finding it difficult adapting to new ways of working. The young teachers I work with have no problem at all with progressive or traditional good practice. Adapting to overbearing assessment, however, is decidedly difficult.

David Muir

Findhorn Place

Edinburgh