Author Archives: harold_SHD

On Aussie Rules football, Picasso’s advice and English exams⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Peter McNally

The winning team must sing a song on the final whistle. Melbourne based teams regularly play home games in Cairns. Their strips don’t have sleeves. Things are a bit different in the world of Australian Rules Football. Another quirk is their Player of the Year equivalent. The ‘Best and Fairest’ not only requires greatness at key moments but also consistency across the season and, most strikingly, discipline on and off the field. One red card or tabloid accusation and you can forget it. As Picasso probably didn’t say – ‘A good artist borrows. A great artist steals.’

Our starting point for the revolution we need in our exam system should be to look outwardly and widely. Below the Senior Phase we have Early Years and BGE which kicks things off with playful pedagogy and ends up with breadth, depth, personalisation and choice. Above us we have FE/HE who are increasingly assessing group work and presentations. The Senior Phase approach to assessment is the Victorian anomaly in the middle.

A bit of background

Once we’ve done that we then need to take a really good look at ourselves. I teach English and it saddens me to think (ok, sorry for the idealism) that we turn the analysis and discussion of great literature into derivative formulas. I can be really guilty of kidding myself on that we are a ‘skills based’ subject when we look the other way as pupils simply regurgitate screeds of notes. The reality is that too many kids rote learn essays or planned responses in their National 5 and Higher exams. Part of the problem is that the SQA and their copious documentation isn’t specific about this. They leave us enough rope to hang ourselves. We grab greedily, twist tightly and jump with relish. Some of us might be better than others in how we interpret the guidelines. Some of us work for authorities that don’t allow this. I’m working on the assumption that anyone reading this agrees that reform is required. If I was to apply a sprinkle of Marxist Theory (and I hope not mansplain!) to Woolf’s key concept in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ then I simply can’t see how a high stakes, one off, regurge-athon is in any way fair. Candidates lucky enough to wake up on exam day morn in their own bedroom, grab their iPad from their Post-It strewn workspace for some last minute revision, sip their green tea and consume a hearty bowl of granola and fruit might be in a slightly better place to remember most of what they have rote learned than a candidate who missed breakfast that day.

I’m really proud of the Sports Journalism course we offer in my school and hope to turn this into a Media NPA. I know that there examples across Scotland of alternative assessments. This is great and we need more of it. But we need to look at our flagship awards first. I can’t speak for every qualification so am going to look at my own, think about some changes and see if I can draw any conclusions.

How might I improve assessment within my own subject?

I love elements of the AH English course and I think a starting point would be taking some ideas from that course and developing them.

Textual Analysis

Candidates are given an unseen text to analyse. There isn’t an overly proscriptive assessment grid and given it lasts for an hour and a half allows candidates to focus on quality not quantity. Could we replace the N5/H critical essays with something similar? Pupils, in my experience, love engaging with the texts in class. By doing it this way we could take a bit of the pressure off and allow them to engage in an exam situation where they can demonstrate their skills of analysis and share their opinions. And they can’t come into the exam hall with pre-planned screeds.

Literary Study

Could we blend the Scottish Set Text (N5 + H) and the Literary Study (AH) and make it an open book assessment on a previously studied work(s) of Scottish Literature. If the question is a comparison then it means we wouldn’t have the reference/example rigmarole of the first 10/12 marks followed by a rigidly structured comparison but actually get an extended piece of writing on a text they know well (and have access to). I know a fair few teachers who get a nit mumpty about the Scottish Set Text. The assessment in its current form is a mess. But I do think it is important that we read the voices from where we live.

Folio

We really need to do something about this. Equity and equality are out the window as far the folio is concerned. I actually think it’s a great thing that we assess kids writing skills. Giving them the opportunity to think, plan, write then edit something creative, personal and discursive is fantastic. I don’t actually think the way we assess it is terrible either. I’d need to be careful here not to give the SQA any undue praise. The problem stems from (too many of) us. Forgetting tutors, the extra support I’ve seen given to pupils even in schools means that the final folio isn’t really a representation of their own work. In the current system I don’t really see why management would want to change anything. If we were to get the kids to write their essays in class, in front of us, then grades might drop. The data analysts’ and league table fantasists’ worst nightmare. So what can we do? I would be tempted to scrap it but what might work is copying Maths and send a folio that ‘shows your working’. It could trace the journey of a piece of writing and include checkpoints throughout the year when certain sections need to be submitted. It could start with a plan, a first draft with corrections, a plan for further edits and the final piece.

Dissertation

I don’t think I’d be an advocate of introducing this or something similar into the N5 and Higher courses. Many of the skills have been assessed elsewhere. The only other element that hasn’t been covered is the Spoken Language Unit we have at N5 and Higher. The SQA have put it on the chopping board. It’s clear what they think of it. I admit that I probably should be a bit better when it comes to this. I treat it as a perfunctory box to tick. I do teach and assess the skills regularly. It just feels a bit forced when recording this. Universities use presentations and group course work as assessment tools. I don’t know the ins and outs of this but don’t see why we can’t be influenced by them. We could work with the SQA and add a bit more gravitas and weighting to this. Schools are abuzz with signage, chatter and complicated cover requirements when Drama. Music or Modern Languages have their practical assessments. Does English engender even a passing emotion when we assess talk? Maybe we do have to look at ourselves a bit with this one but a few amendments could turn this into a far more worthwhile assessment.

What are my conclusions?

That I’m not even convinced by my amendments. I need to sit down with colleagues and discuss these. And I think teachers of other subjects need to do the same. We need to ask if our current assessments are fit for purpose. We probably have to define the purpose too. I do think that if we can assess a bit more regularly with a more relaxed approach we could get a more realistic appraisal of a learner. It will also remove some of the undue pressures that mean we will never get a Leicester City 2016 story when any school can top the (admittedly ghastly) league tables.

Where do we start?

Filling in bureaucratic SQA proposals or going through SIPs/FIPs/HGIOS statements isn’t going to help. These might lead to incremental changes. We need huge changes. Rampant managerialism, data worship and League Table Leadership means that neither the SQA nor Senior Management Teams, even considering the ‘Empowerment Agenda’, have any real desire to upset the apple cart. Desire to change the status quo is merely sloganistic. They are the status quo. Discussion at departmental level and online will be the crucible for new ideas. Once we have a position and every subject submits proposals for their own assessments we can then find our points of agreement (and points of clash) and a position can be formed. Once this (not insubstantial) organising has been completed we need to start agitating. It is my view that the only way to enact significant changes is with the support of the unions. We need to channel the Aussie Rules’ quirks, take Picasso’s advice and come up with radical ideas. Creating networks, sharing ideas and shouting with a collective voice are the only ways we will be able get our ideas heard. We need to utilise the links to the real decision makers that the unions have and make it clear that an overhaul of our exam system is required.

What now?

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SQA – The Root of the Problem⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Chris Noble
@BrotherMunro

I have a tendency to look for the root of a problem – it is a curse that goes along with being a Physics teacher. I’ve written, rewritten and scrapped at least 5 diatribes on exams in Scotland and what we could do to make them better. However I came to the realisation that these were all window dressing: to make lasting long-term change in how we assess and accredit learning we need to change the system.

Not necessarily the exam system – though I would argue we should – but the system and rules of how qualifications are set. And this is where, to me, the problem lies. The Priestley report into the 2020 ‘algorithm fiasco’ was altogether damning of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Yet the SQA admitted they felt they had done nothing wrong. This feeds a perception of the corporate culture at the SQA being one of aggrieved, sometimes even spiteful, omnipotent lords of education whose motives are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. This arrogance can be seen in their frequent missing of deadlines and tendency to publish vital materials and information months after it was actually needed.

This is perhaps shocking, but not overly surprising. The SQA is held to little or no account for their failings. Not one member of the board or senior person at SQA has resigned or faced any consequences. Why would they? There is perhaps only one person the SQA needs to keep happy – the Education Secretary. Any system of power that relies on keeping so few individuals on your good side is a recipe for disaster, corruption and incompetence by its very nature (in political science this is known as ‘selectorate theory’).

So change, I feel, is not so much what we should do with exams themselves, but far more about how we can hold the SQA to account. If we get it right the system itself will encourage better decision making and improvements for decades. As I see it, the SQA should be held to account by three broad groups: the people, teachers, and experts.

The People already have a form of educational oversight – the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee. They can (and have) called upon the SQA to testify for them but lack any form of sanction against the SQA if they, say, miss a vital deadline or break a promise they made to the said committee. So Part 1 of my proposal would be to legislate via Act of Parliament to transfer sufficient powers to the committee, so that they are able to demand the resignation of SQA executive officers if necessary. In this way the SQA would have to keep the committee happy and their actions would be more fully open to public scrutiny.

Teachers have two main forms of representation; their unions and the General Teaching Council of Scotland. If the SQA had to get approval from these bodies before implementing changes the SQA would be forced to consider the reaction of teachers to its ideas.

Lastly, the experts. University courses are accredited by a wide variety of bodies depending on the subject. These bodies are already familiar with and deeply involved in determining if courses and assessment are sufficiently rigorous and whether the course content is appropriate and relevant. Requiring the SQA to seek accreditation of its courses would force the SQA to consider carefully its content and approaches.

Combined, I am convinced these three changes would force a culture change within the SQA and compel it to make better decisions not just for next year but for all years going forward.

What now?

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Scottish Education’s 10 Letters⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Barry Black
@BarryBlackNE

Last week I spoke at the Scottish Policy Forum’s Conference on the Review of the Curriculum for Excellence.

I set out how the priorities for Scotland’s exam system must be the alignment of Scottish education’s Ten Letters.

  • CfE – The Curriculum for Excellence
  • SCQF – The Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework
  • DYW – Developing the Young Workforce

Three acronyms we will all be familiar with, but which represent policy strands that frustratingly remain at odds with each other.

During the course of my PhD fieldwork, and desk-based research, I have seen how remaining structural issues combine to cut off curricular opportunities, flexibility and innovation.

Crucially, I am increasingly of the belief that our exam system – which has been maintained as the system’s absolute priority, almost at all costs – disregards and overrides the holistic intentions of our curriculum.

There are three key suggestions which I believe could make a difference.

  • Structural reform of Nationals – to reduce their stranglehold on the senior phase timetable – would allow greater flexibility for the senior phase to achieve the change it sought. It may also address some of the issues concerning the vast differences in curriculum structures – and numbers of subject choices available – that we see across Scotland.
  • Integrating fully the range of options DYW has created and firmly recognising skills for work qualifications as equivalents to Nationals and Highers would make these options more attractive and accessible for young people.
  • And a more holistic assessment system, in line with our curriculum intentions, would better reflect learner journeys and appreciate the broader range of achievements available in the senior phase.

Big changes yes, but then, we should have big ambitions: aligning the CFE, the SCQF and the DYW – our ten letters – needs to be our system’s priority.

The Speech

It was said to me not too long ago that the priority for Scotland’s exam system should be for it to have some priorities.

Within that  tongue-in-cheek sentiment lies great elements of truth. All too often it seems that different elements of Scotland’s education system, however well intentioned, designed or operated, appear to pull in different directions from each other. That they operate often within their own silos, according to their own priorities, with different sections of young people as their audience.

I want to talk to you today about ten letters. Ten letters which now define the education of every young person in Scotland and how the alignment of these ten letters should be the priority for our qualification system, and indeed the senior phase curriculum:

CFE   SCQF   DYW.

Three acronyms we will all be familiar with, but which represent policy strands that frustratingly remain at odds with each other.

______________________________________________

Take a young person obstructed from pursuing three sciences qualifications in one sitting because of the sharp narrowing of subjects the curriculum increasingly prescribes when entering the senior phase.

Or a young person presently taking two subjects in S5 that they would rather have sat at a later stage due to a need – both practical and cultural – to take five Highers in one go.

Or a young person who ends up caught in the middle of a dispute between their school and potential university due to the university not recognising a foundation apprenticeship as a Higher, despite other areas of the education system assuring that learner it would.

These are not hypothetical scenarios, but real stories young people told me during my PhD fieldwork this year.

Stories of young people attempting to take up some of the excellent opportunities which now exist in our schools, only to encounter a disjointed system which prevents them from taking full advantage of the curriculum.

______________________________________________

The focus of my Doctoral research is to understand more about how young people in Scotland negotiate the influences upon them when making their subject choices. Central to this is the exploration of the Curriculum for Excellence and whether it has delivered on the changes it promised.

Prior to lockdown, I spoke to around one-hundred pupils, in a range of school across the West of Scotland, about their choices, aspirations and pathways.

The impression I had formed in my desk-based work previous to this however, and indeed the general discourse surrounding education, was that the overall standard of education in Scotland’s schools – through no real fault of their own – was declining and that they were being let down by an education system failing to implement the structural changes designed years ago.

Whilst not downplaying the very real issues within our schools, my experience of being at the ‘coalface’ has challenged these preconceptions. The discourse of ‘failing’ Scottish schools was far away from the reality of what I experienced. Over those months, I witnessed a dynamic, vibrant, innovative and exciting system, packed full of dedicated professionals striving to do their very best by every young person.

And yet structural issues – the failings of the wider system – were however evident.

______________________________________________

CfE

Parliament of course voted in January for a review of the senior curriculum, a vote that has led to us all looking at our screens right now! But some core issues – which arose largely from the work of researchers such as Professor Priestley, Dr Shapira and Professor Scott -became evident during the course of the inquiry into subject choices.

Rather than these concerns just existing solely at this ‘national level’, they were a key issue for individual pupils within much of my research too.

Rather than a broad general education that prepared young people for the senior phase, it was evident amongst pupils I spoke with that third year was often an empty year that seemed more an extension of the previous two than a clear point of transition. In response, some schools even begin formal Nationals at this point – still reflecting more the structure of Standard Grades – evidence of a system that has nearly as many curricular structures as it has schools.

CfE envisaged a cohesive and flexible three-year senior phase – focused on achievements at the point of leaving school, as opposed to within individual years. But I observed schools and pupils still using it as a three-year progression – which is in fairness in line with the expectations of employers, colleges and universities.

And rather than an integration of short courses, extra experiences and wider achievement awards right across the senior phase, these oppertunities often exist solely for 6th years, who have previously ‘got their grades’ needed for their post-school aspirations. 

______________________________________________

SCQF

Now while it is hoped and assumed that the review will address many of these issues, it is increasingly evident to me a key factor is the imbalance between the holistic intentions of the curriculum and the ridged criteria of our qualifications system.

I have little interest today in rehashing the saga that has just past in terms of exam results, but one of the most interesting issues it raised was that the system – and those who govern it – prioritised the exam diet above all else. Maintaining ‘all conquering’ exam grades as absolute priority, and in doing so governing destinations and life chances.

Further, the seeming lack of regard for how the structure of new qualifications would impact on senior phase timetabling is clearly one of the key reasons for strain on the senior phase curriculum. 

______________________________________________

DYW

Perhaps where I saw the greatest curriculum innovations was in Developing the Young Workforce programmes. How progress has been measured against the overall aims of DYW – not least in destinations and youth unemployment – tell a story of emerging success and the great enthusiasm surrounding it is testament to this.

One school I was in, with a cohort including some of our most deprived areas, had a vibrant DYW programme running, with post-school destinations improving year-on-year and a real awareness from pupils of the link between their subjects and their aspirations.

Much of this work however was driven forward by a few individual teachers, rather than being structurally engrained.

But in schools in more affluent areas, DYW was sometimes non-existent. This aligns with the findings of the reviews carried out into the programme, which evidence that implementation depends heavily on a range of factors, including socio-economics and geography.

There are cultural issues too with how new pathways are viewed in education and industry. Sometimes too the young people I spoke to believed there was a cultural NIMBYism from parents and schools regarding these pathways – that apprenticeships are great, but for other kids.

Until a straight-A student views foundation, and then ultimately modern apprenticeships are a viable alternative to university, DYW will not have been fully integrated and its true potential will not be realised.

______________________________________________

CfE is of course a curriculum based on building four broad capacities, using eight curriculum areas, across five levels. The refreshed narrative rightly discusses knowing the big ideas, using meaningful learning networks and embedding creativity.

Its structure equates to a curricular model Kelly would explain as curriculum as process and education as development.

Such models plan learning to be flexible and open ended, not pre-determined and rigid, and allow development to take place at looser stages than the other models. Many of the starting points for such curricular structures are based around ambitions and principals, rather than outcomes and procedures.

Whereas, Developing the Young Workforce is a program focused very much on specific skill enhancement and destinations as the key outcomes.

Overall, our exam system disregards and overrides the holistic intentions of our curriculum.

Indeed, connecting these two different approaches to curriculum, as well as how assessment interacts with them both, is a question that seems as yet unanswered in Scottish education. Perhaps a question that may be answered by the current review.

There are three suggestions which I believe could make a difference.

Structural reform of Nationals – to reduce their stranglehold on the senior phase timetable – would allow greater flexibility for the senior phase to achieve the change it sought. It may also address some of the issues concerning the vast differences in curriculum structures – and numbers of subject choices available – that we see across Scotland.

Integrating fully the range of options DYW has created and firmly recognising skills for work qualifications as equivalents to Nationals and Highers would make these options more attractive and accessible for young people.

And a more holistic assessment system, in line with our curriculum intentions, would better reflect learner journeys and appreciate the broader range of achievements available in the senior phase.

Big changes yes, but then, we should have big ambitions.

In conclusion, aligning the CFE, the SCQF and the DYW – our ten letters – needs to be our system’s priority.

What now?

  • Leave a comment below.
  • Join in the discussion on Twitter by using the #examscot hashtag, and following our central account @examscot
  • Join the discussion on our Facebook page
  • If you’d like to submit your own blog-length opinions, or contribute to a fact-based article, do get in touch with us at mail@exam.scot or by direct message on Twitter; we’d love to feature your thoughts or research on the site.

Awaiting the Priestley report⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Isabelle Boyd
@CoradCor1

As we approach the end of September, all of us with an interest in Scottish education are awaiting the report from Professor Mark Priestley. Following the Scottish Government U-turn around the 2020 SQA examination results, the Deputy First Minister announced that he had asked Professor Mark Priestley from Stirling University to lead an independent review. The review would look at events since the cancellation of the 2020 diet and consider a range of related topics: the advice from SQA and Local Authorities to schools and centres; approaches developed in estimating grades; moderation methodology used by SQA; the impact of the SQA awards on young people and families; and feedback from teachers.

It appeared from the DFM’s statement to parliament on 11 August 2020 that a full exploration of potential new approaches to assessment and certification has been given to the OECD as part of the current Curriculum for Excellence Review.  This felt like the long grass for such a vital key pressing issue and was one of the reasons behind the setting up of exam.scot.   We should use the COVID 19 lockdown and subsequent awards debacle to explore possibilities around exams and certification.

In the last few weeks, I have engaged with individuals and groups looking at our current system and exploring alternative ways of certification and examination. At a recent event, I asked participants “Are you satisfied with the current examination and certification system?” and 100% responded “No”. The reasons for the dissatisfaction are those which have been explored in detail on this site and in other media. In summary, the reasons given include:

  • many great things happen in our schools but these don’t seem to count as exams dominate everything
  • our system needs to change to capture a wider set of achievements and skills. Building the Curriculum 5 created an entitlement for young people to have the full range of their achievements recognised. The exam system does not provide for this
  • we still have over assessment and exams at end of S4 and S5 and S6 ill-serve young people especially given that 60+% of young people stay on to end of S6
Percentage of 2018-19 school leavers by stave of leaving: 11.9% leave in S4, 26.8% leave in S5, 61.2% stay on to the end of S6.
Source: Summary Statistics for Attainment No 2 25 Feb 2020 Scottish Government
  • pressure on teachers to teach to the test
  • the two-term dash is still alive, to the detriment of depth and breadth
  • the needs of many in our system are not met.

When seeking views about alternative systems, I asked two questions: Should awards be based solely on teacher judgment and continuous assessment? Or should we have a mixed system with different methodology for different disciplines / should we have a final exam system plus element of continuous assessment?

Very few participants were in favour of a system that relied solely on teacher judgement and in exploring a different model, participants were split 40/60 about no exams versus a mixed model.

However, even the 60% who favour some sort of exam that tests knowledge, understanding, memory, and recall want different approaches to the current pen and paper, all or nothing system. There needs to be a variety of methodology available for different subjects.  The one size fits all approach of the current system feels stifling.

There is certainly an appetite to explore digital approaches, open badges – which are becoming more and more prevalent in adult learning and open book exams which increased in use at Universities in 2020 in response to the COVID lockdown. This approach is also more akin to work based practices. As one participant noted, “I can’t think of any situation in the workplace where I’ve had to work from memory in an exam situation … I have resources available to me”.

There is also a growing body who favour modular courses and interdisciplinary project-based courses and assignments as evidenced in International Baccalaureate: the Scottish version of which has a very small numbers of candidates undertaking these courses. This is a pity and begs the question: why did the Scottish Baccalaureate fail to catch fire? Can the blame be laid at the feet of the universities who did not value the worth of these qualifications?

Is the current exam system driven by a blame culture whereby the primary schools blame secondaries for their curriculum rationale and secondaries blame university entry requirements to justify offering traditional, tried and tested courses? Alternatives exist such as Open Badge modular courses and National Progression Awards, but at school level the uptake is very small. Is this because their worth / value in the current system is not high due to perceived low esteem in the eyes of employers and Higher Education? This then leads to a lack of courage to make changes in a system where conformity is safe and is condoned.

All in all, though, following input and discussion I would conclude from this sample, albeit limited, that “exams as we know them have had their day”.
As an eternal optimist, I hope that Professor Priestley’s report will be bold and courageous and go beyond the remit to set the scene for a new examination and certification system for Scotland.

Maybe in these last few weeks we have seen the beginning of the end for the current system. The evidence I would cite is the Deputy First Minister’s statement to Education and Skills Committee earlier this month that his “ambition remains to run a 2021 examination diet. However, in these exceptional times, the SQA and education recovery group are looking at contingencies which will be appropriate to the circumstances”. Furthermore, Mr Swinney has stepped in and asked the SQA to delay the promised guidance on changes to 2021 exams and courses until Professor Mark Priestley’s review is published.

This evidence could suggest that the 2021 diet will be cancelled or so drastically altered for some candidates that it sounds the death knell for the current SQA system as we know it. Here’s hoping …

What now?

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A change would do you good? – Assessment and examinations in Music⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Dr Angela Jaap
@angelajaap
Lecturer, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

The Scottish Government’s ‘U-turn’ on the SQA results has prompted some very lively discussions around the approaches to assessment and examinations in Scotland. A quick scan of social media highlights a range of views which make it abundantly clear that there is an appetite and willingness for change; from strong advocation of a ‘root and branch’ review of the current approaches to more subject-specific thoughts, detailing potential ways forward to ensure effective evidence gathering for demonstrating learners’ progress.

Having followed the broader discussions with interest I have also thought about my own subject of Music and the potential changes that the SQA exam system could take in the future with regards to the subject. As a subject and wider discipline Music has an interesting relationship with examinations, sometimes highlighting a variety of nuances around assessment and examinations. While there are some very specific and challenging issues around assessment (for example, subjectivity and appreciation of nuances of genre, the authenticity of assessment) this blog will focus on three broader issues of assessment and exams in Music which may be useful in revising and refreshing our school-based approaches.

Existing continuous assessment in music

Firstly, as a subject Music is rich with assessments and examinations, all of which are integral to our practice as musicians. From beginners through to experienced professionals, there are a range of examples of self-, peer- and tutor-based assessments that feature in our day-to-day activities in lessons, ensembles and concerts which we use to help inform our musical outputs.

For example, a typical 1-to-1 instrumental or singing lesson might start with the teacher giving feedback on warm-ups or scales. A good example of continuous assessment in a scenario with many more participants is that of a conductor of a choir or orchestra, who will make a number of comments during a rehearsal: “that was good, but can you make sure you follow my diminuendo in bar 23?” As follow-up feedback, the singers or players might receive a brief “thank you, much better!”, or just a nod as they sing or play onwards. And the reactions of an audience, or of other players in a group, are often the most rewarding form of ‘assessment’: sometimes this is just a smile or a certain something in the room, sometimes it is rapturous applause (or, alternatively, silence!)

This continuous assessment is so implicit in our work that we hardly notice it; we draw upon it and use it to inform and make adjustments so quickly and naturally almost as though we are on autopilot. However, while continual assessment is so prevalent and valuable in the wider discipline of Music, it could be used to greater effect in the school context. How could music’s unique brand of continuous assessment be utilised in a classroom environment? And, most importantly, how can we get the learners fully involved in this type of assessment?

SQA is not the only player

Secondly, another feature of assessment and examinations in Music is that National Qualifications are only one of the exams available for learners. Beyond the mandatory school exam system, there are a variety of Graded examinations in Music Theory and/or Performance through examination boards including the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), Trinity College London or Rockschool which are invaluable for those interested in further study or indeed those who wish to gauge their skills simply as part of a hobby or a pastime.

The approach taken in preparation for these exams is quite different from that of school. For each of the exam boards above, the learner develops the knowledge and skills required of a particular Grade and then undertakes the exam when they are ready, with a choice of a variety of locations to suit the individual across the country. Could such a bold, learner-centred move be considered in a revised school-based approach? Perhaps such a shift is too radical at the moment: the thought of multiple exam points could be an administrative nightmare, but a combination of continuous assessment and an examination may provide an opportunity to draw from these broader practices of assessment and examination in Music to inform our school-based approaches and help to make it learner-centred.

Following the leaders and bridging the gap to further study

The final point for consideration centres upon the musical activities and achievements of young people who go beyond the mandatory requirements of the SQA qualifications and how these can be recognised.

Since the 1970s the popularity of Music has grown considerably. The subject has shed its perception as being only for a small number of ‘musical’ learners and is now recognised as a subject with a strong philosophy of being for everyone. As noted in the What’s Going on Now? Report (Broad et al., 2019), in session 2016-17 Music was the sixth most popular subject at Advanced Higher with presentations across the National Qualifications comparing ‘favourably’ (p.26) with other subjects.

Yet, while there are high numbers of candidates being presented across the NQ levels, for those who wish to pursue tertiary-level study in Music there is a considerable gap noted between requirements of NQs and entry requirements of Colleges, Universities and Conservatoires. In short, the National Qualifications are not enough for those with aspirations of a career in Music.

I am not suggesting that we should raise the ladder and renege on the subject as being ‘for all’, but there is a need to explore how additional challenge can be provided to those who are consistently exceeding the mandatory requirements for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher.

One possible way to provide additional opportunities for these highly able musicians is to increase access to the Music Leaders Scotland Awards (MLSA) as an extension to the mandatory exam requirements. The MLSA provides credit-rated opportunities for young musicians with performance skills higher than the standard of the SQA qualifications, supporting them to develop and refine their skills of performance and leadership while also engaging with professional music. As such, raising the profile of the MLSA across the country would be invaluable in both extending the learning of highly able musicians but also in our attempts to narrow the gap between school and tertiary-level study.

________________

There is scope for a refresh and change to the assessment and examination framework in Music. The current structures do recognise the core elements of musicianship, but school-based assessment and examinations could look for ways to draw upon the ‘natural’ continuous assessment of the discipline, to promote pupil involvement in assessing their work, and to ensure that the work of those who are regularly exceeding the requirements of the SQA examinations are recognised with credit.

Dr Angela Jaap, SFHEA FRSA, is a Lecturer in Professional Learning at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and formerly a secondary school teacher. She is interested in high ability studies and learning and teaching in the creative arts.

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Teaching (without a final exam): National progression awards in law⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Paul Hamilton
@_PaulHamilton

Let’s start with a bit of context. I have been a secondary school history teacher for eleven years. In that time, I have taught my fair share of pupils, taking them through Standard Grade, Intermediate, National, Higher and Advanced Higher examinations; but 2020/21 is shaping up to be a bit different …

In what sometimes feels like a previous life, prior to being a teacher, I studied for and graduated with an LLB (Hons) in Law. For various reasons, I never went on to pursue a career in law, but that does not mean I simply left the subject (or the interest) behind. Now, in session 2020/21, after years of wanting to, I am delivering the Level 6 NPA qualification in Legal Studies to S6 pupils at Clydebank High School, in partnership with the School of Law at the University of Glasgow.

So, what is the course all about? It is a National Progression Award (NPA) that, in terms of SCQF points, is comparable with a Higher level qualification. It consists of two mandatory units, Introduction to Scots Law and Crime & Society. But perhaps the most notable feature of the course is that it does not have a final examination; instead, there is ongoing assessment throughout the academic year.

As a teacher, I cannot stress enough just how liberating it feels to deliver a course which is not predominantly reliant upon a high-stakes final examination. Instead, the qualification achieved (or not achieved) by pupils is based upon their academic achievements across the entire school year. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

“Since there is no final exam it gives us a chance to prove ourselves throughout the year.”

Mia Moohan (S6 pupil)

“A continuous assessment process is much more representative of what a student can do … there’s a lot to be said for allowing students to be assessed in smaller, less pressurised and time-constrained ways, rather than hanging their fate on how they perform on one single exam on one single day.”

Holly McKenna (LLM Research Student)

“Ongoing assessments … allow you to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”

Rachael Purvis (Law graduate)

I would argue not that we move away from final examinations but, instead, that we think seriously about their weighting. Is it right for an entire year’s worth of study to rely so crucially upon a pupil’s performance on the day of their final examination? I don’t think so, and before anyone suggests that “it did us no harm,” I don’t accept that either! This is not about exams no longer being fit for purpose; my view is that they have never been fit for purpose. (I have thrown the cat amongst the pigeons now, haven’t I?)

Imagine a world where SQA courses were assessed on an ongoing basis, where the majority of subject content was assessed, where it wasn’t a lucky-bag as to the questions being asked on the day of the final exam and where – even if a pupil was having a ‘difficult day’ – there wasn’t a need to consider ‘special circumstances’. My idea of utopia, or sheer madness? You decide.

Further to all this, the school I teach at is situated within an area classed by the Scottish Government as being of ‘high deprivation’. The school is not what I would describe as an ‘exam factory’ (thank goodness, I say). Yet our pupils punch incredibly well. In all aspects of the curriculum, they perform as they should, are afforded the same learning and teaching experiences as their peers in the ‘leafy suburbs’, and in most instances progress towards what the government refers to as ‘positive destinations’. But that doesn’t mean the picture is a wholly pretty one …

“As someone who recently graduated with a law degree, having grown up in what is classed as an area of deprivation, my experience of studying law – particularly in the first year – left me with the sense that there is an inequity. Coming from an area classed as deprived, you may not have had the same contacts, experiences and opportunities as others.”

Morgan Henry (Law graduate and former Clydebank High School pupil)

How many of the young people I teach have had an experience of the law which wasn’t confrontational and was instead aspirational? How many of the young people I teach have had dealings with a police officer in a circumstance which wasn’t distressing or upsetting? How many of the young people I teach have felt that it would be possible for them to go on and study law at university? I could go on with these questions for some time …

“Law can seem scary and inaccessible … bridging the gap between high school (no experience) and university (thrown in at the deep end) is a very positive thing!”

Holly McKenna (LLM Research Student)

“Offering subjects such as Law [at school] is essential. Offering this as part of the curriculum will ignite a spark in young people who have, perhaps, never considered or felt capable enough to consider law as a career path.”

Ami-Jayne Hughes (Law graduate and paralegal with DAC Beachcroft)

“Studying legal studies is benefiting me greatly as I want to study law when I leave school.”

Bethany Provan (S6 pupil)

Offering NPAs such as Legal Studies is an opportunity for schools to think differently to, dare I say, start thinking a bit outside the box when it comes to curricular design, without even having to be radical.  The world is indeed spinning fast and schools have a job on their hands just trying to keep up (I know that) …

So, how am I wrapping this all up?  I certainly don’t pretend to have any solutions (just suggestions), and I am sure some of what I have said will attract a degree of criticism. But maybe that’s a good thing! Perhaps, as teachers, we have been too conformist for too long.  We know the young people we teach, we know our subjects and we know our schools …

If something is broken, let’s start fixing it!

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Assessment: My road to Damascus⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Iain White
@iainwhitecreat1

I believe there is a the need for a change in our assessment practices and I’d like to share where this has all come from. Some 15 years ago or so, when I was Head at Govan High, I was part of a small, dynamic group looking at where the school should be going, particularly in the light of radical changes to the curriculum structure that we had recently made. The school’s focus had changed to getting positive destination for all of its leavers. We came to realise that gaining qualifications was but part of the story;  equally important was being able to succeed at interviews and to do this, leavers had to be aware of what they were good at. In short, this meant they had to know what skills they had. Within the school, a taxonomy of skills was developed, and a system created that identified, developed, assessed, recorded and reported on skills development. Quickly, skills became part of the students’ vocabulary.

Some time ago, in Tes Scotland, there was information in a side panel from a CBI survey, indicating that 49% of young people believe that their education has not prepared them for the world of work. This figure is high and yet I was not surprised.

I believe that the assessment system is based on archaic principles, with the majority of what is assessed being reliant upon the capacity to memorise and regurgitate the thoughts and findings of others.  This certainly prepares nobody for the world of work, unless they intend to earn a living from winning money in pub quizzes! Students are put in exam rooms. They are not allowed to communicate with anyone in the room or the world outside. Most of all, they cannot access the vast store of information and knowledge on the world wide web. In fact, should they be seen to be even just in possession of a smart phone, they will get no award in the exam. What – in the 21st Century?

In any work place today, the emphasis is on teamwork and collaboration in a problem-solving approach. Use is made of all available information on site or on the web. As an example, in my Govan days I visited the design office at BAE Systems shipyard in Scotstoun. Being a Greenock boy of the 60s and 70s, I was familiar with the yards from student summer jobs. However, I was now really taken by the use of computer aided design compared to the drawing boards and pencils that I remembered from my shipyard days. I was introduced to a designer (a Govan High FP) and he explained the problem he had in trying to site a fresh water circulating pump, because of pipework for other lines being placed in his optimum areas by other designers. Within seconds, he was surrounded at his PC by 4 other designers and he was outlining the challenge he was facing. He was in the Chair. Within a few minutes of discussion, a solution had been found through their collective efforts. Working separately, they had created a problem; working together they solved it. The Chair finished by saying, “So everyone knows what we need to do?” Off they went, problem solved, and the freshwater circulating pump had found a home. The designer was not made to sort it himself in isolation! This is how the world works.

Skills of communication, problem solving, team working, evaluation, developing positive relationships, planning courses of action etc. are what matter today – not the regurgitation of knowledge.  In 2005, Dan Pink, in his seminal book, A Whole New Mind, said, “We’ve progressed from a society of farmers, to a society of factory workers, to a society of knowledge workers.  And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathisers, of pattern recognisers and meaning makers … We’ve moved from an economy built on people’s backs, to an economy built on people’s left brains, to what is emerging today: an economy and society built, more and more, on people’s right brains.” He contends that we are beyond the knowledge-based economy and we are! It’s what we do with knowledge and information that is important. Deep learning is important, not rote learning. The future is skills and yet our education system is rooted in the knowledge acquisition that was important in the past.

I have believed this for so many years now and yet it was really crystallised for me 3 years ago through personal rather than professional experience. My son was preparing to sit his National 5 examinations in Business Management, English, Mathematics, Modern Studies, Physical Education and Practical Woodworking. In this preparation he literally wasted days of his life, learning “stuff” for regurgitation; “stuff”, the memorising of which had no intrinsic value; “stuff” that there was no need to commit to memory, because it can be accessed in a matter of seconds from his phone. The skill of memorising quantities of knowledge is of almost no value in today’s world.

I had such great hopes for Curriculum for Excellence, but so much is being lost along the way.  In Building the Curriculum 4 and the Experience and Outcomes, a skill set exists from which a skills taxonomy could be developed easily.  The Report of the Higher Order Skills Excellence Group said as much but, sadly, the message has failed to get through. It would be possible for the development of skills in students to be assessed, internally, along the way, and complemented by external open book exercises. Then we might get close to assessing that which is relevant and valuable for success in the 21st Century world.

If you ask a Scottish school student the question “What are you good at?”, the answer that you will get, overwhelmingly, is “Modern Studies” or “PE” or some such – in other words a school subject. Nowadays, we need young people to be saying communication, or team working or hand-eye co-ordination – in other words a set of skills. That answer will never come till the students actually have a focus on skills development in their school life and are able to articulate their qualities and progress in the vocabulary of a skills taxonomy. The future is skills, but somebody has to let students find out, and understand, what they are good at in these terms. Our system doesn’t! It is possible though – we did it at Govan. Back then, our success was confirmed for me when an English teacher spoke to me about a conversation she had with one of her students. She was exhorting him to work hard for his upcoming National 5 English exam; his response was, “Yes Miss, qualifications will get me an interview but it’s the skills that will get me a job!”

I had a conversation with a colleague who holds a senior position in the SQA examination team at National 5 level.  It is his view that open book assessments could be devised in English “any time”.  What is the value in memorising endless quotations from novels or poems in our world today?

In my considered view, based on my extensive professional experience, and now as a parent stakeholder, our education system in Scotland has a number of serious shortcomings that do a disservice to our young people and lead to the system failing to meet their needs, the needs of our economy and the needs of our society. The assessment regime being unfit for purpose is but one of these shortcomings.

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“Inequality runs deeper than paying or not paying for schooling”: a tutor writes⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Hannah Smethurst
@HannahSmeth1

Before you read this, it’s important to note that I’m not a “real” teacher. I am a part-time private tutor, offering 1-to-1, or 1-to-small group tutoring, ranging from National 5 level to PhD, from Maths to Law. My experiences over the past few years will be drastically different from those having to work full-time in this crumbling system, and their voices need to be heard, and listened to. Seriously, check on your teacher friends, they need support and gin right now.

That said, private tutoring has opened my eyes to the seedy underbelly of assessments, especially at National 5 and Higher level. Before I started offering help to struggling students I did not realise, and I doubt many people realise, the true extent to which money matters. Rather than professing wide-ranging knowledge of the area, I would just like to tell you the stories of three children I have worked with. All three students sat Higher English this summer, meaning over the past year or so they had to put together their portfolio – a discursive essay, and a piece of creative writing, each about 1,000 words long. The other 70% of the mark comes from an exam, which none of them were able to sit this year. 

1: Jack

Jack lives to the south of Edinburgh, and attends one of the most prestigious (and expensive) schools in the city. He contacted me directly to ask for help with his coursework. By ‘help’ he was, of course, asking me to write it for him. Jack announces this in a coffee shop very close to his school, having just seen one of his teachers buy a latte to take away. Jack understood what he was asking might be classed as cheating, but he was having a difficult year, and 70% of the assessment was exam anyway. All his friends are doing it. His parents know about it – he could show me evidence of the specific school-related bank account they set up for him, if I wanted. I say I’m happy to read through anything he writes, but it has to come from him. Jack laughs. Are you sure? He asks me. It’s good money, he says. He tilts his head and smiles at me, a patronising look he has undoubtedly learned from peers and family alike, and points out he has three other tutors lined up that day alone. One of them would do it for him. I refuse again, and try and work out what exactly he’s struggling with. Oh, he’s not struggling, he assures me. He could do it. He just doesn’t want to. I charge him for my coffee and leave.

2: Alex

Alex also lives in Edinburgh, in a large flat with stunning views. Alex attends the local state school, along with several siblings. His mother informs me that they did not want to give their children an unfair start in life. She’s very open-minded, you see. She didn’t come from money and expects her children to work hard like she did. Alex has a private tutor for every subject he is sitting. We sit in the ‘study room’, a large room with a desk and monitor for each child pressed against each wall, and he tries to engage when I ask him about his discursive writing, but he’s really more interested in Science and Computing. His mother loses her temper with him, and me, for his lack of progress. Every essay he sends over to me, she has already read through and annotated. One evening she rings me. Alex is a smart boy, she says. He’s just struggling with this course because his school does not give him useful feedback. If she paid extra, could I send over some answers to exam questions that Alex could just memorise for the exam? It’s exactly the same as if he was to do them, he’s still got to memorise them, he just doesn’t have time at the moment. He’s a very busy boy, she says. Speaking of being busy, he’s got a rough plan for his creative writing, but could I fill it out a bit for him. It’s not really cheating, he’s got most of the ideas down. All his friends are doing it. He’s very busy, she says.  

3: Mary

Mary lives pretty close to Alex, and also attends a local state school. I have been working with Mary for 3 years, helping her mainly with Maths and English. She lives with her parents and grandmother, and does not have access to a dining table, so all her work is completed leaning on a textbook on her bed. Mary’s teachers do not have time to read through her coursework drafts in great detail, so her feedback, while useful, is limited to “watch your sentence structure” and “be careful with punctuation”. Her portfolio for Nat 5 was submitted with 15 grammatical errors. I give her as much help as I am allowed to. Mary’s parents wish they could give her more help, even just reading through her writing, but neither of them are academic, so do not know where to start. Mary tentatively asks me for help with her exam – she has all the information but does not know how to structure it. I help her form it into solid answers, and she sets about memorising them for the exam. Neither Mary nor her family ever asked me to do work for her.

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For anyone wondering, the two boys in this situation are on their way to the universities of their choices. Jack’s parents are in the process of buying him a flat to live in 20 minutes’ walk from campus. Mary is having to resit her Maths and English. A large part of this discrepancy is the algorithmic decision-making that was employed for the past exam season, which is a different post in itself. However, this situation is not wholly unique. Every time coursework season comes around, I am inundated with requests to write it for students. Exam season arrives alongside emails asking for perfect answers for perfect children to memorise.

Inequality runs deeper than paying or not paying for schooling. It’s the ability to buy every revision guide and book of practice questions that’s available. It’s the ability to hire private tutors. It’s your parents having the time and energy and knowledge to read through your work. It’s the money to know you can hire someone to write your work for you. It’s having a dedicated area to work, even if that’s just on a specific bit of a dining table.

There are problems with every system – exams, for example, are a very binary way of measuring achievement – but those problems can only be tackled when this extra benefit that children from wealthier families gain, even outside of fee-paying schools, is properly addressed.

 

The names of students in this article, and some of their personal details, have been changed.

Hannah Smethurst is currently a student on the DPLP course at the University of Edinburgh, having gained a distinction in the Innovation, Technology and the Law LLM at the University of Edinburgh. She has been working as a research assistant for various professors for the past few years, examining the interaction between education and technology, drawing on her experience working as a private tutor for nearly a decade. hannahsmethurst.co.uk

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The fault in our system: suggestions for assessing english⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Sammy McHugh
@MsSammyMcHugh

2020 has been a challenging year, and in many ways the exam furore has been the tin lid for those of us in education. The government and the SQA had the unenviable task of making sure the 2020 results were delivered smoothly in the midst of a national crisis, but what they actually did was expose the massive fault line running right through our system. This has sparked a desire by many to discuss the merits of that system and to question its place in an egalitarian 21st century Scotland.

We all know how subjective English can be: it’s never been perfect and I’m certainly not trying to claim that, but over the years the English course assessment has become increasingly narrow and arguably, more cynical. The system as it stands today – a Portfolio of two essays, a Spoken Language assessment, an unseen close reading of non-fiction and an unseen Critical Reading paper – leaves little room for teacher or pupil choice, and individuality is often the first thing to be sacrificed.

I know that English teachers have a range of views about what works and what doesn’t, and I’m hoping that by putting my head above the parapet it might help trigger a much needed grass-roots discussion about what the best way forward might be. So here goes:

Talking and listening to be assessed throughout the year

I find it soul destroying to spend so much time on it on the BGE only for it to be a quick, ‘get it out of the way’ further up the school. I know it’s time consuming but it absolutely can be woven into the teaching of language and literature – it does not need to be stand-alone or tacked on as an afterthought. I do think that other subjects need to play more of a part in talking and listening and many do: there is excellent practice going on in areas like social subjects and other departments across the country, but there has never been a serious national attempt to capture that as part of ongoing Literacy assessment.

Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation to be kept more or less the same, but we need to focus on the reading and analysis of non-fiction much more and much earlier on

Close Reading (can we just call it that please?) is sometimes used as a ‘filler’ lesson if teachers are off and, as it’s often done as stand-alone lessons at the best of times, pupils find it hard to make the connection between all of the different skills and question types. Teachers tend to focus on literary non-fiction for more extended studies and maybe pupils pick up on their discomfort with teaching ‘straight’ non-fiction. The Language option is a much-ignored part of the exam paper at the moment and I think that’s because many teachers don’t feel confident teaching it. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest CPD issues facing English teachers today – but as we rarely get the time or encouragement to develop our own portfolio of knowledge and skills post-ITE, the problem rumbles on.

Drop the mandatory Scottish set text

I understand the idea behind the Scottish text component but by insisting that set texts are adhered to, it means that it is the books in the cupboard that are used rather than the best ones for the job. English teachers in Scotland have always taught Scottish texts but they used to have the freedom to choose what was right for them and their classes. I love MacCaig and Duffy as much as the next person, but six poems? Just take a look at social media around the exams to see what the pupils think about it all.

Critical Essay to be completed as part of coursework rather than in an exam and in open-book conditions

In an open book assessment, pupils have the chance to use the knowledge and skills they have accumulated over the course of the year and apply them to the challenge at hand – is that not a better marker of someone’s learning? We could have true intertextual analysis here too with teachers looking at texts by the same authors or looking at texts thematically. Because of the demands of the Scottish text, we have a reduction in the other literature studied for part two of the Critical Reading paper. Teachers have become quite savvy about this and often departments teach two Scottish texts to give their pupils the best shot in the exam. I understand that but how does this narrow focus help to celebrate the wonderfully diverse range of texts that are out there? We don’t have to drop Textual Analysis from summative assessment either: we could go back to the olden days of the Practical Criticism and give pupils a chance to use their skills in a more independent, transferrable way. What a joy it would be to set that paper – staff could insert such a selection of interesting and lesser-taught texts into the curriculum this way.

Personal Reading to be given a higher status in the Senior Phase

I know the Personal Study/RPR was not always done well but we really need to look at this again. It is such a marker of a pupil’s development for them to be able to analyse a text using prior learning, and it’s done with great success at Advanced Higher. Could we not look at how to bring this in again at Higher at least?  I also think that more time needs to be devoted to reading for enjoyment in general. It’s a cop-out these days to say they should be doing it at home. Of course they should, but often they are not. Do we just continue to turn a blind-eye to this when we know how important reading is for the development of all other English skills? Allow pupils reading weeks during the year, where they can read without the fear of being made to do the dreaded book review at the end of it.

Writing to be assessed in class rather than in a Portfolio that is sent away

Get them writing little and often on a range of weird and wonderful topics – really challenge their thinking and let them showcase their talents. It could be done under timed conditions in class – the way it used to be – and while we’re at it, we could do away with the pain of including two independent sources of information – one of which will inevitably be Wikipedia. You would also then neutralise the threat of plagiarism and the ‘helping’ with drafts from parents and tutors. I would also like to see pupils being given the chance to write creatively in these assessments; this is a skill that is being squeezed every year which is a shame as that is what attracts many to the subject in the first place. What about bringing back the unseen Report where pupils have to synthesise ideas from a range of open-book sources and make recommendations in their conclusion? What’s the point of promoting rich tasks and higher order thinking in the BGE if we just abandon it all the minute they reach S4?

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I appreciate that if a lot of the above is to be carried out by teachers in class, we’d need time to plan and organise everything. The time we currently get is just not enough; Education Scotland and the authorities want us to complete rigorous assessment and moderation activities but when are teachers that are on 27/33 supposed to do this? Alongside any revised assessment structure, there must be a serious reduction in class contact time to allow all teachers to plan for teaching and learning as well as assessment and moderation. The balance just now is all wrong; development time is always seen as an add-on and it should be given equal weighting with teaching time. I feel it’s very similar to the way we spend a fraction of the teaching time going over the learning and next steps – we do it really quickly and almost apologetically as there is so much of the ‘course’ to get through. This has to change and if it doesn’t, any new measures will inevitably fail.

Another important aspect is partnerships: we are still not looking at education in a holistic way. We compartmentalise our work and live in our own echo chambers. I want to have regular planning meetings with primary staff because I want to know where the children are coming from. I also want more communication with those in further and higher education so that I can see where the pupils are going when they leave us. We must all be on the same side with this instead of pitting our wits against one another. I know this is a complex issue and it won’t be solved by educators having a few twilight meetings: it needs radical, original thinking and the courage to take a leap into uncharted territory.

Some may dismiss my suggestions as pie in the sky: my ideas are unrealistic and there is no money, time, or goodwill to do it in today’s educational climate. However, my point remains unchanged: the fault in our system has been exposed and we cannot unsee it. Are we going to hastily cover it up again and allow it to continue, or are we going to put the best interests of the pupils of this country at the forefront, and finally do something about it?

Thanks for reading.

Sammy McHugh is an “English teacher and general do-gooder” working in a Scottish secondary school. She is the host for @EnglishScotland and blogs at everydaysaschool.wordpress.com.

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Five steps to better exams⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Melvyn Roffe
Principal, George Watson’s College, Edinburgh
@roffeme

Firstly, we have to be humble and realise that all examination systems are flawed. We should thus be very wary about placing too much faith in them under any circumstances. Even in a good year, gross injustices are done to pupils by the examination system. Research has shown compellingly that as many as 25% of grades in GCSEs in England are wrong every year. There is no reason to suppose that the situation is any better in Scotland. Universities and employers (and government) need to wake up to the fragility of the data upon which they make judgements about young people and their abilities.

Secondly, we have to make assessment the servant of the curriculum and not the other way round. This means breaking the stranglehold of exams in S4, 5 and 6 – and to a very large extent the whole of the High School curriculum. In too many schools, the High School experience for pupils is a long drawn out winnowing process by which valuable learning opportunities are first undermined and then jettisoned because a pupil is not taking that subject for Nat 5s or Highers. The evidence is in the catastrophic fate of languages and creative subjects in the Scottish curriculum. We should design the curriculum, then decide which bits of it need to be assessed, how and when, and then design assessment appropriate to that task. At the moment we tend to design the assessment based on some mythical concept of a “gold standard” and as a result the quality of the curriculum, and hence the learning experience of pupils, suffers grievously.

So, thirdly, this means that we shouldn’t be aiming to assess everything in the same way, at the same standard – or at all. Those who advocate continuous assessment are right – but are also wrong if the assessment is intended to be part of a massive standardised system which will collapse under the weight of pressure on teachers and the impossibility of making standards truly comparable. Ideally, pupils through high schools would be able to take a mix of courses, some with qualifications and some without. Universities should engage in making modules of undergraduate study available for those who are ready for it and employers would find it easier to support pupils’ learning without everything having to be wrapped up with the qualifications framework. And many of the distortions in the system are caused by trying to assess many many different types of content and skills to a notional common standard that doesn’t exist in the real world.

Fourthly, we shouldn’t obsess about trying to assess everything at the same time. Key skills such as numeracy and literacy could be assessed entirely objectively in a similar way to the driving test theory exam when young people need to prove their level of competence to a potential employer or Higher Education institution. This would be a more accurate and relevant test – a bit like the IELTS test required for international students to gain entry to UK universities. It would also ensure that there was a rigorous focus in schools on those skills without which no one is likely to fully thrive in adulthood, but it would avoid creating an artificial trip wire across the path of those who may develop those skills later than most or who face particular challenges. To take the driving test analogy another way, I often make the point that – as someone with limited spatial awareness from a family that did not own a car – there would have been no way I would have been able to pass my driving test if I had been given one chance to do so on a random date in the summer when I turned seventeen. Yet that is how we give (or deny) young people access their own futures.

And fifthly, it follows from the above that we need to make sure that all qualifications are available to all young people at a time that suits their learning needs. Today I learned from a colleague that it is not currently possible to take Higher Engineering Science or Physics at any FE College in Scotland. I really hope that proves to be untrue, but it is certainly true that access to many Highers and particularly Advanced Highers is a postcode lottery which, like most postcode lotteries, is skewed against the postcodes with the highest incidence on deprivation. Scottish National Qualifications should be should be just that: qualifications that are available nationally.

What now?

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