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INSIDE TRACK: The CfE reform of what is studied in schools still being tested

This year's Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) examination results will be issued early next month.

Young people and their teachers will await their arrival with customary anticipation. That anticipation, and perhaps more than a little apprehension, will be shared by the designers of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), the much heralded and hyped reform of what is studied in our schools.

However, it will be a major surprise if results for the first National 5 examinations, taken by fourth-year secondary pupils, do not show an improvement on previous Standard Grade results. The movers and shakers of Scottish education have invested too much, educationally, financially and politically, to countenance a dip in youngsters' attainment.

Anything less than a modest improvement would have dire political consequences, five weeks before the independence referendum. One anticipates much coming and going between the offices of the Scottish Government, SQA and Education Scotland before the results are posted through letterboxes and inboxes. Some headteachers have been so confident of the political imperative that they have encouraged teachers to enter as many pupils as possible for National 5, on the basis that, for the Government, failure is not an option.

Many will see the National 5 examinations as a dry run for the politically more sensitive Higher courses due to begin in August and assessed for the first time in 2015 and 2016. Higher courses and awards have long been considered the "gold standard" of Scottish education providing, among other things, the yardstick for university admission. While a decline in candidates' attainment at National 5 would be bad enough, a corresponding decline at Higher would be unthinkable. However, it is questionable whether the success or otherwise of CfE can be judged solely on evidence arising from external assessments.

Many in education are uneasy about the continuing focus on the numbers of courses, assessments and awards at National 5 and Higher. They feel this has undermined the core purpose of the reforms, namely to transform and improve what and how youngsters learn. In short, the tail continues to wag the dog, largely underwriting the status quo. Critics believe that, for CfE to deliver what is expected of it, a transformational approach is also required to assessment, for example by enabling candidates to draw together knowledge and skills learned in different areas of the curriculum and by introducing a wider range of assessment methods. Anecdotally, a growing number of teachers question the need for external examination at all at the end of fourth year, except for those who intend to leave school then.

The Government will be justified in congratulating young people and their teachers on their achievements when the first National 5 results are published in August. However, healthy scepticism should be applied to claims that these results demonstrate the efficacy of the CfE reforms. The success or otherwise of CfE will only be judged in terms of how it helps our young people to be more creative, resourceful and resilient. Otherwise, plus ca change ...

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Education

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