On the SQA and Scottish school exams: We need to redefine success

ONE of the fundamentals for exams, of course, is turning up on time.

By that metric, the Scottish Qualifications Authority had failed before even licking the nub of its pencil.

Schools had been told they would be informed of the plan for next year’s exams in advance of the new term starting and yet gates were open and bells ringing but no statement.

At last, on Wednesday, the exams body made the announcement everyone had been patiently awaiting. Next year, exams will go ahead – unless they don’t.

If in-person exams are not possible for public health reasons then there will be no repeat of the exams-but-not-exams assessments that were used this year. Rather, teachers’ judgements on “normal in-year assessments” will be used.

The teaching unions were quick to point out this creates a twin track approach for staff and pupils to manage: prep students for end of year exams but also prepare continuous in-class assessments.

Essentially, little certainty and potentially an increase in workload.

There can be some sympathy for the lack of certainty. The pandemic has shown us that little can ever be certain. It’s also shown that speed and nimble thinking are vital, two things the SQA seemed to entirely lack over the past two cancelled exam diets.

Ahead of the 2021 exam diet it hedged its bets, waiting until what felt, to pupils and teachers, like the last minute before taking a decision. Guarantees are needed – from the SQA or whatever comes to replace it in the forthcoming shake up – of early planning.

While the SQA can’t control the timeline of a pandemic, it can control its expectations on young people and staff by taking pains to avoid, as the EIS called it, an “assessments treadmill” in Scottish classrooms and additional workload for teachers.

As an outsider, it astonishes me how schools are supposed to simply absorb all of this and keep going. It must feel miserable to be inside it.

The pandemic has given the chance to do things differently and an overhaul of the exam system should be a priority, both for pandemic recovery and in the planned reshaping of the SQA.

To do that, we need to refocus what we want from our schools and what we view as success.

The way we talk about schools gives the impression that for many people there is only a vague notion of what goes on in them.

On one hand, you have this firm belief from the types of folk who support league tables that success is simply measured in volume of Highers. At least five, preferably at A grade. The more the merrier and that’s a job well done.

Yet whenever there is the merest sniff of social ill, the cry will come, “They should teach it in schools.”

A few years ago I went through our cuttings to count up how many new problems, over the preceding 12 months, had been put forward as solvable if added to the curriculum.

Hunners, was the answer. Everything from how to competently manage money to identifying fake news and improving sloppy manners, alongside tackling domestic abuse, increasing the hours of outdoor play and providing yoga.

So, there is an understanding that schools play a holistic role in the lives of young people but this is batted far down the pecking order, well behind exam results.

During the pandemic, local authorities were given free range to tackle remote learning and the hurdles of school closures on their own. In Glasgow, schools accelerated the roll out of iPads to make sure their pupils were connected to their learning and they put in place the means to make sure school communities were connected.

I spoke to the headteacher of Castlemilk High School in Glasgow whose school arranged for two pastoral care phone calls per week to each child. The secondary also had an app that measured a young person’s engagement with online classes. If engagement fell below a certain level then the child and family would be contacted, not to be chided or chased but to be offered additional support.

Meanwhile, I was contacted by parents from Williamwood High School, just across the border in the far more affluent East Renfrewshire, who raised complaints about the school and their children’s exam results.

Young people who had been predicted five As had earned nowhere near such grades. Instead they had much lower marks or had dropped courses; some were having counselling as a result of feeling overwhelmed and cut off.

It was no surprise – Williamwood parents are your classic active, engaged and forthright mums and dads and the sort to contact a journalist rather than take an injustice lying down.

While East Renfrewshire Council strongly contests any issues with learning and teaching at Williamwood, it would make sense that a school used to comfortably lounging at the top of the league tables might do less well when faced with adversity.

Glasgow schools are well used to tackling the hardships of pupils in the city. While the schools at the top of the league table remain fairly static year on year, Glasgow schools consistently climb. Not because increasing numbers of Highers is their end goal, but because there are so many innovative initiatives going on to support children and young people as whole human beings – attainment rises due to that.

Schools in affluent areas aren’t build for tackling adversity, they’re built for pushing fortunate young people when the going is good.

Point being: success is a variable measure, depending on how you judge it.

Post-pandemic, we want all schools to be able to offer young people a variety of opportunities that support them both academically and in non-academic skills as well as in wellbeing.

How their academic achievements are scored is a good place to start. There are so many examples of exam alternatives that could be copied or adapted here – borrowed from universities, say, or from overseas.

What these alternatives have in common is that they broaden the measure of success and place greater importance on what is valuable to a young person’s future beyond excellence in exams.

Young people have lost so much in this pandemic. They can’t get that back, but this is a chance to improve for coming cohorts. Exams aren’t the be all and end all, and this time we have to really mean it.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992