Glasgow & West Scotland

Row over Hermitage Academy's exam system

Hermitage Academy Image copyright Google
Image caption Parents have signed a petition against the exam system at Hermitage Academy

A row has erupted over the unusual way new qualifications have been introduced at a school in Argyll and Bute.

None of the students at Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh sits exams in their fourth year.

The school argues students have a better chance of success if they spend two years studying towards their Highers instead.

But hundreds of parents say the system is not working and have signed a petition calling for an urgent rethink.

They claim the system at Hermitage is disadvantaging students and argue more are now failing exams or even leaving school with no qualifications.

Councillors say they have noted the concerns and a review of the system is under way.

The new National 4 and 5 qualifications replaced Standard Grades across Scotland two years ago.

Unusual approach

At most schools, academically able students spend S4 studying for National 5 qualifications while others do a mix of National 4 and 5 qualifications.

Pupils with National 5s can then go on to study for their Highers.

But Hermitage Academy has adopted an unusual approach.

At the end of S3, all students - regardless of academic ability- choose the six subjects they would eventually like to achieve a Higher in. For some, inevitably, this may prove more of an aspiration than a likely outcome.

Image copyright PA

There are no exams in S4 but at the end of S5 students sit exams for the qualification they have they best chance of getting at that point. For some this may be a Higher, for others it may be a National 5.

The risk is that if a candidate fails, they may end up with no qualification at all in that subject although they can choose to retake a course in S6.

Some parents claim Hermitage is using their children as guinea pigs and argue the school's unusual approach is not working out.

They have formed a campaign group, Parents for Change, and want Hermitage to move to the more conventional system used at most other schools. Hundreds have also signed a petition.

Good practice

Spokesman Kevin Middleton said some able pupils may not do as well as they might have in their Highers if that was their first experience of an exam. He argued sitting National 5 exams in fourth year could prove good practice for them.

Concerns have also been raised locally by teachers' unions.

A spokesman for Argyll and Bute Council said Hermitage had originally developed its model in consultation with parents but acknowledged there were concerns.

He said: "Following receipt of examination results, it is appropriate that all schools review their curriculum and the review of Hermitage Academy's curricular model began following the summer recess.

"These reviews underpin our commitment to providing the very best education experience for each individual pupil.

"As we progress with the review of Hermitage Academy's curricular model, parents, pupils, staff and members will be involved.

"It is expected that the review report will be completed by the end of November, in the meantime, should any parent have a specific concern they wish to discuss regarding their child's progress, we would encourage them to make contact with the school to discuss the position and the supports in place."

The concerns have already reached the council chamber.

On Thursday, councillors rejected a motion which would have seen Hermitage start to give S4 students the chance to sit up to eight National 5 qualifications.

But they backed a detailed amendment which noted the concerns that had been expressed.

Two-term dash

The amendment also noted that the council's education service had started a review of the curricular model at Hermitage in conjunction with the school's management team.

The changes to the exam system across Scotland started to be introduced during the school year 2013-14.

Standard Grades were scrapped - the National 5 qualification is broadly equivalent to a Credit pass in a Standard Grade.

Overall, the aim now is to concentrate on what qualifications a youngster has obtained by the time they leave school - not what they have achieved by a particular stage or the total number of exam passes.

For many academically-able youngsters, a National 5 qualification is merely a stepping stone on the way to a Higher just as an O Grade or Standard Grade used to be. The question is whether gaining the lower qualification first is actually any help.

Although Hermitage's approach is unusual, a number of schools now offer able students the chance to bypass National 5s on a subject-by-subject basis so they can spend two years studying towards Highers. Advocates of the concept say this minimises exam stress and maximises the candidate's chance of a good grade.

Spreading the course over two years can help avoid the sudden increase in workload and expectation which can hit students at the start of a Higher course in S5 - the so-called "two-term dash".

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