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Just how excellent are we talking, here?

January 27, 2013

If you live outside Scotland, you may be unaware that we have a new curriculum – the Curriculum for Excellence (you can’t get much better than that now, can you?)

The C for E was first introduced in the primary sector, and now new qualifications are being developed for 12-18 year-olds, the expectation being that these qualifications will also be used in further and adult education.

The principles behind C for E are sound enough, and you can learn more about them here: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/thecurriculum/whatiscurriculumforexcellence/index.asp

Basically it promotes a more holistic approach to education, focusing on skills and outcomes (what the student can do rather than just what they know) and allowing sufficient flexibility for the qualifications to be appropriate for the wide range of candidates that they cater for. Teachers are given freedom to design assessments that fit their learning contexts and the needs of their learners. Rather than using tests from the National Assessment Bank (commonly known as NABs) teachers can follow a range of assessment models, and tailor assessment exemplars so that their students can identify with the topics.

As far as English Language teaching goes, this all seems pretty sensible. It’s impossible to assess someone’s ability to use language without a context to use it in, and logical to use a context that students are familiar with. The holistic element simply means that individual language items can be assessed through the completion of carefully designed tasks. This approach to curriculum delivery and assessment therefore fits nicely with existing constructs of language teaching.

Unlike the rest of the UK, Scotland has a national body that accredits qualifications – the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) – and it is therefore this organisation’s responsibility to develop and introduce qualifications that reflect the principles and facilitate the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence.

There is already a suite of SQA-accredited National Qualifications for ESOL which are widely delivered across the secondary, FE and Community Learning sectors in Scotland. These are to be shelved and replaced with new qualifications which are more in line with Curriculum for Excellence.

SQA is making some bold statements about the impact of the new qualifications and what they mean for practitioners. Individual centres will have more freedom to develop assessment models that are appropriate to their students and the contexts they are learning in. As well as being able to decide what contexts are to be used and therefore what lexical items to cover, centres can also make choices about the actual mode of assessment. Skills can be integrated into the same assessment (e.g. speaking and listening outcomes can be measured within the same task) and candidate evidence can take a variety of forms, from old-fashioned test results to the collation of a portfolio.

This increased flexibility has clear advantages. The number of assessments can be reduced, and centres can ensure that whatever the mode and content of assessment, it will be appropriate for their candidates. Evidence gathered to demonstrate candidates have met the criteria can be “naturally-occurring” (SQA’s terminology), meaning there’s no need to digress from the syllabus or stress the students out by creating formal and perhaps very unfamiliar assessment conditions.

Or is there? While most centres would welcome the freedom that the Curriculum for Excellence seems to offer, the whole thing does raise some issues with standardization and quality assurance. If individual centres are allowed to develop their own assessments, who is to say these assessments are good enough to accurately measure the performance criteria?

This is where SQA faces a dilemma. The Curriculum for Excellence may be excellent in theory, but in practice it can only work if individual centres are able to come up with the goods. As it stands at the moment, SQA doesn’t trust centres to do this, insisting on all assessments going through a process of prior verification before they can be used. But if they continue to insist on this within the new C for E framework, this will reduce flexibility in terms of assessment content as assessments will need to be in place before the course starts and therefore can’t be tailored to meet student needs. It will also lead inevitably to negative or inappropriate backwash, as centres will prepare their students for the assessments rather than prepare assessments for the students. In effect, we’ll very quickly find ourselves in the same situation we are in now. The only difference will be that the centres will have the added responsibility of writing assessments and dealing with related copyright issues.

SQA has appointed subject specialists from a range of ESOL backgrounds to develop the new C for E qualifications, and what has been produced so far shows that there is a desire to implement the Curriculum for Excellence as faithfully as possible. However, the issues of standardisation, verification and ownership have not yet been resolved. For the new curriculum to be truly excellent, SQA will need to make some bold decisions to match its statements. After all, “excellent” is an ungradable adjective; something is either excellent or it isn’t – anything in between and you need to use a different word. And we don’t want to end up with a Curriculum for Mediocrity now, do we?

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