Archive for the ‘National 5’ Category

Last month I wrote a blog post (an edited version of which has also been published by TESS) in response to the SQA’s pronouncement that their new appeals process had been a success. I disagreed with this assessment, arguing that the new system would in fact exacerbate the issue of educational inequality in Scotland.

To my surprise (and I’m sure entirely coincidentally) the Labour Party’s deputy leader in Scotland yesterday attempted to go on the offensive over this very issue during First Minister’s Questions. Kezia Dugdale challenged Nicola Sturgeon over the huge drop in the number of appeals, arguing that the introduction of a fee for failed appeals had resulted in a system which benefits private schools and, consequently, disadvantages everyone else.

By all rights I should have been pleased to see this issue raised in our nation’s parliament but unfortunately – and unsurprisingly – political point-scoring (on both sides) was much more important than getting to the root of the issue. It became clear almost instantly, for example, that Dugdale doesn’t actually understand how the new system works or how it differs from the old appeals procedure, and Sturgeon’s answers suggested that she isn’t any more informed than her opposition counterpart.

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Today, Monday the 7th of April 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, where up to a million men, women and children were slaughtered in just 100 days.

As countless innocent people were hacked, beaten, stabbed, burned and shot across Rwanda, the west refused to use the term ‘genocide’ in isolation for fear of being forced to intervene, instead referring to ‘acts of genocide‘. Countries like the UK and USA demanded that UN peacekeepers were withdrawn, not reinforced, and then sat back and watched one of the most shameful and shocking events in modern history unfold in front of their eyes.

Put simply, the fact that a minimum of 800’000 lives were extinguished in full view of the international community matters; the west’s abdication of their responsibility to the people of Rwanda (because they simply weren’t considered important enough for us to risk anything for them) matters; the hypocrisy of nations who preach human rights while ignoring human suffering matters; and, most importantly, giving students the opportunity to really understand the world in which they live matters.

Ask the average class of teenagers what they know about the Rwandan genocide and some might be able to tell you, roughly, where Rwanda is; a handful may have seen Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs; one or two might be able to tell you a little about the mass slaughter that occured; however, the vast majority are likely to have no idea what happened during those dark months in 1994.

This – for me – is important, and this year I have made an understanding of the Rwandan genocide, and the wider implications of our responsibilities to the rest of the world, the central plank in my National 5 English course. The two primary critical essay texts – ‘Spiritual Damage‘ and ‘War Photographer‘ – were selected specifically for this purpose, and an ongoing focus on the themes ideas explored in both pieces has ensured that now, at the end of the academic year, the class are in a position to provide complex, insightful and honest responses not just to the texts themselves, but also to the wider issues that they raise.

Unsurprisingly, the primary means of teaching about the genocide has been Fergal Keane’s ‘Spiritual Damage‘, a reflective essay in which he looks back on the emotional and psychological impact of what he witnessed during his time in Rwanda. Keane writes with such power and clarity that an initial response from pupils is guaranteed, and gives students a way to access the big ideas of the text through the experiences of one frightened, damaged, and incredibly brave individual. Some of Keane’s examples in the opening paragraph, where he tells us that “the smell of the dead would drift out across the warm air of the afternoon” and that “in the bushes were rags and bones and withering flesh” provide opportunities not just for complex textual analysis but also for pupils to begin to engage with the horror of what happened in Rwanda years before they were even born.

Over time, however, through analysis of the text, discussion of the ideas and viewing of supporting media (including, but not limited to, the films mentioned previously) the students begin to engage with the topic on a level that many would think impossible for a group of 14 and 15 year olds. I have read critical responses to ‘Spiritual Damage’ in which the personal and intellectual responses go beyond anything I could ever have produced when I was a pupil, and overheard spontaneous conversations about not just the text itself, but also the incomprehensibility of what occurred in that small, beautiful nation two decades ago.

Yes, there is always a risk in hoping that pupils will engage with something which, in all honesty, requires them to demonstrate a level of sensitivity and maturity which is certainly beyond their years, but young people have a limitless capacity to rise to the challenges put in front of them. What teenagers also possess, in my experience, is an inherent and beautifully simple anger at the injustice they see all around them, and that anger is what we must help them to focus if we, as teachers, wish to honestly tell ourselves that we are using our privileged professional position to try to make the world in which we live just a little bit better.

Of course, for some people, the basic question about Rwanda remains the same – why should we care about what happens “in obscure African countries” (or, indeed, in any number of remote nations whose conflicts have no apparent impact on our safe, comfortable lives)? As ever, Keane explains it better than I ever could:

“I will care about what happens in remote African countries because Rwanda has taught me to value life in a way that I never did before. The ragged peasants who died and those who did the killing belong to the same human as I do. This may be a troubling kinship but I cannot reject it.
To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity. I am not worried if this sounds like a  sermon. I do not care if there are those who dismiss it as emotional and simplistic. It is the fruit of witness.”

I urge all of you to read ‘Spiritual Damage‘, to find out about as much as you can about the genocide in Rwanda and to consider teaching your pupils about happened in that ‘obscure African country’.

Remember that what happened in Rwanda was not just another tribal conflict, but a meticulously planned act of deliberate mass murder; remember that the victims of the genocide were exactly the same as you or I, but without the good fortune to be born in the life of privilege that we enjoy; and, most importantly of all, remember the following:


“…if we ignore evil, we become the authors of a guilty silence.”

I posted the above tweet earlier this evening, but 140-character posts really aren’t an adequate medium for exploring this particular topic, so here we go…

It has recently become clear that, in many departments, schools and local authorities, there is an expectation (even a policy) that all pupils sitting National 5 will also have completed the National 4 Added Value Unit (N4 AVU) as a safety-net in case they fail the actual National 5 exam. As I have already made clear, I do not believe that this is the best way to progress with the new qualifications, and I feel this way for a number of reasons (many of which may well be specific to my subject – English – but maybe not).

First and foremost, completing the N4 AVU means adding ANOTHER assessment to the workload of teachers already grappling with a National 5 course which, far from freeing teachers from the evils of over-assessment, places a significantly greater burden on teachers than ever before. To make matters worse, this particular assessment would be for a course that the pupils are not even intending to complete, making it – in my view – the very definition of wasted time (time which, incidentally, would surely be put to better use preparing students for the exam to make sure that they don’t fail it).

Of course, the justification for the ‘AVU safety-net’ approach is the fear that pupils will complete S4 with no English qualifications should they fail the National 5 exam, but wasn’t it always clear that this would be the case if there was no automatic drop-down from Nat5 to Nat4? Furthermore, is this really anything new? OK, under the Standard Grade system is was practically impossible not to get some sort of English qualification at the end of S4, but what about the schools who had abandoned Standard Grade in favour of Intermediate 2 in S4? Were they expected to spend time ‘banking’ Intermediate 1 NAB passes just in case some of their S4 failed the Intermediate 2 exam. The situation seems quite clear to me – if a pupil fails National 5 then they resit the following year.

I will of course concede that, as ever, there are shades of grey, and in this case those mid-tones are represented by the pupils likely to leave high school after S4, thus eliminating the possibility of a resit. In these cases, it may be justifiable to cover the bases by banking N4 units and the AVU, but how many pupils are really going to be in this category? Surely the majority of S4 leavers are unlikely to be National 5 pupils, and that blanket policies (which hugely increase assessment workloads and paperwork requirements) should not be made on the basis of a small number of students seems, to me, entirely self-evident.

At the end of the day, however, there is also something of a philosophical issue with a blanket requirement for S4 National 5 pupils to complete the N4 AVU, and that is that many – maybe even most – people will attempt to solve the associated problems by doing the AVU when the timetable change takes place in their school. Why is this an issue? Well, surely the AVU is designed to be an end of course assessment for the National 4? By essentially annexing the N4 AVU into the N5 course I believe that we raise questions about the validity of what we are doing – assessments should either be formative – and used to help inform progress – or summative, and an AVU in the form likely under the ‘safety-net’ approach is, in my opinion, neither.

So where does this leave us? Well, it seems clear that it is more important than ever not just to submit pupils for the correct level of study; this, however, may require a consequent culture change where we move purposefully away from the persistent – and damaging – notion that pupils must race through as many qualifications, at as high a level as they can, as quickly as possible (something which looks great for schools, but may not serve individual pupils anywhere near as well).

In an attempt to make life easier for National 5 English teachers I have uploaded some critical essays to the National Moderation site. Teachers can now go on, read the essays and explain the mark they would give it, the idea being that this should help to make us more confident in the assessment of critical essays (since the SQA have declined to provide the necessary exemplification because, apparently, ‘to do so would not be credible’).

If you want to have a look the essays can be accessed here.

I have decided to make all of my National 5 resources available through the Free Resources page on this website – please feel free to use anything that you think might be useful.