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Scottish exams: when is a curriculum not a curriculum?

The new exams have raised some eyebrows. Credit: PA

Imagine you were back in that exam hall, pulse racing, nerves jangling, waiting to get on with one of the most important events in your life.

The invigilator booms out the instruction: "You may turn over your exam paper now".

You look at the first question on the paper: "When is a curriculum not a curriculum?"

As case of 'the hard one's first eh', as Eccles would say in those Goon Shows of long ago.

Now, it's very unlikely that any Scottish pupils would be asked such a question in their exams.

But as pupils across Scotland open their exam results envelops today it's a question worth asking.

The answer is deceptively simple. It is this: "When it's Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence."

Because the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is not, in the eyes of its creators, really a curriculum at all.

That is it does not, educationalists say, provide a prescriptive way of teaching across Scotland.

So what exactly is CfE? This is now the Education Scotland quango defines it:

Curriculum for Excellence aims to achieve a transformation in education in Scotland by providing a coherent, more flexible and enriched curriculum from 3 to 18.

The curriculum includes the totality of experiences which are planned for children and young people through their education, wherever they are being educated.

The purpose of the curriculum is encapsulated in the four capacities - to enable each child or young person to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor."

– Education Scotland

Some education academics say these principles are vacuous.

Others argue it encompasses a new way of learning, getting away from the rigid, outdated learning ways of the past.

That debate continues though critics of the CfE tend to be in a minority. Scottish government ministers and opposition parties broadly support CfE.

But because of the CfE this year's exams are different. And, in some areas, controversial.

In what way different? Well, take the new maths Higher exam.

According to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) the new exam involves "assessment of different skills and knowledge, for example, deeper learning and higher order thinking skills".

Make of that what you will.

But for the pupils who sat the new maths exam the differences were not theoretical but real. Many complained it was much harder than the old Higher maths.

Following complaints from pupils and teachers the SQA admitted "the assessment proved more demanding than intended and therefore the grade boundaries were reduced".

In other words, for a lower absolute mark compared to the old exam, pupils will in some cases get a higher grade.

As the SQA puts it:

This ensured that candidates received the grades they deserved. For instance if a candidate receiving a C last year were to have sat the exam this year, they would also have achieved a C."

– SQA

All this is perfectly normal, the SQA and ministers say.

But today's results still show a difference in pass rates for the old and new maths Higher.

  • 10,854 entries for existing maths Higher - 73.1% got A to C grades
  • 10,220 entries for new maths Higher - 70.8% got A to C grades

There has been no outrage over this, but it would be fair to say eyebrows have been raised.

Education secretary Angela Constance, meanwhile, has promised that the introduction of the new exams will continue to be monitored and any lessons which need to be learned will be.

There are always teething troubles in any new system, ministers say, but overall CfE is working well for those who matter most - Scotland's young people.

I asked the SQA for a more details explanation of the new exams and their purpose. This is what they told me:

"The new Highers have been revised to update content and reflect the focus on knowledge and skills. The aim is to provide a smooth learner journey from 3 to 18 and, as the curriculum and learning and teaching approaches have changed, so the qualifications needed to change too.

"The new Highers have been developed to provide smooth progression from the new National 5 qualifications and will provide good progression into the new Advanced Highers.

"The new qualifications use a broader range of approaches to assessment to better capture candidates ability to apply their knowledge and skills. For example, the new science Highers now include an assignment as well as an examination where candidates research a topic of interest to them and write up a report to outline their findings. The examination and the assignment are both marked by SQA and contribute to the final grade the candidate receives.

"The skills being assessed in the assignment are vital for progression to HE and employment within the STEM area.

"We all want to give Scotland's young people the best possible chance when leaving school or college - whether they are planning on progressing to college, university, training or employment."

– SQA

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