The Higher English Folio and Equal Writes.

There won’t be an English teacher in Scotland out there who isn’t currently stressing over the marking of written Folio essays for both Higher and National 5 classes. A pile which never seems to shrink; another pupil who’d like you to take another look; the demoralising realisation that deadline day is fast approaching. Indeed, over the course of my eighteen years in teaching the assessment of writing in the senior phase has changed several times, arguably not in a good way. I would argue that, at a time when equity in education is so much in focus,  the way we assess writing now has never been so unfair.office-594132__340

The new exam system is now in its third year and, while this might surprise some,  I have been mostly pleased with it. Teaching Don Paterson poetry has been a joy; spending time with Hamlet has been fantastic. The rest has been a chore. Time seems to be constrained; deep learning, at times,  rare. However, the writing folio – one creative piece and one functional piece of  a maximum of thirteen hundred words each – is externally assessed by the SQA and is worth thirty percent of the final grade. So, a good grade for Folio can take you much of the way to a pass.

The writing is assessed using a marking grid which every teacher and pupil can access during the writing process. So far, so fair. But not really. It would be difficult to argue that the external assessment is unfair; perhaps there is an argument there but that’s for another day. The real problems become clear, however, when we consider the preparation and support given. The SQA guideline suggests ‘reasonable assistance’. It also says this;

‘Assessors should not provide specific advice on how to re-phrase or improve responses, or provide model answers specific to the candidate’s task. It is not acceptable for the assessor to provide key ideas, to provide a structure or plan, to suggest specific wording or to correct errors in spelling and/or punctuation. This would go beyond reasonable assistance.’

Those who can, rush straight to their tutors for help. And yes, despite the above advice, tutors do. Parents often insist upon it. Those who can afford it get more help. those who can’t, struggle on. Different approaches are followed all over the country. It’s a system which, while appearing to be equal in terms of assessment is, in fact, anything but.

So perhaps, if we are to assess writing more fairly, it needs to return to the final exam. Why the hell not? It might re-emphasise our need to teach writing properly. Our whole curriculum was supposed to be a move away from our traditional exam system but it doesn’t appear to have worked. What was intended to be an attempt to narrow the gap appears to me to be exacerbating it. Let’s face up to that and do something about it.

One thought on “The Higher English Folio and Equal Writes.

  1. We have often had an issue with the ‘reasonable assistance’ on the ‘first draft’ which is then followed by your para quoted above. One could define it as being allowed to chat/scribble on the first draft and thereafter not a sausage. But yes, time and again I have caught kids or kids have accidentally said their tutor has looked over the draft. I know of several cases where their tutor or even their teacher has obviously typed the damm thing up for them. eg: A kid two years ago had to redo his discursive because he said his tutor had helped him. The replacement was also written in a similar vein using words he didn’t even know….also kids decide to submit a poem because their mate died despite the fact that it’s the worse poem ever and the creative they did originally was brilliant. They then fail miserably. Just too many things that add stress onto the teachers and the kids. The temptation is to fiddle the folio to get as near a third of the marks as possible and then we have to put up with tutors teaching ‘template essay’ answers that get twisted (often badly) to suit the actual exam question…aargh! These tutors should be dealt with by the GTCS. They KNOW they’re breaking the rules but don’t care. Even worse when they actually teach in a nearby school (or even the same department!) I agree with you that we should just have the exam. Teach them the skills and let them use them in an exam with little chance of fiddling the system, especially if you’re richer than the kid from the local poverty stricken area.

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