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

from @ Exam Scot

by Dr Angela Jaap
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

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

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

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.


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.

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The fault in our system: suggestions for assessing english⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Sammy McHugh

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?


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

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Five steps to better exams⤴

from @ Exam Scot

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

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.

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In defence of exams⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Matthew Marr

It’s not hard to find reasons to criticise the exam system. Some say it’s unfair to base a child’s future on a two hour test. Others argue exams cause major stress to pupils. So for many it’s an open and shut case: exams are a negative influence and should be removed from the Scottish education system. Except it’s not nearly as simple as this (and in fairness, not all critics of exams believe it is).

The reality is that there are many strengths in the exam system, and any changes to pupil assessment must not lose these. The first benefit is that of assessment consistency: exams are a single, coherent way of measuring pupil progress. It does not matter which school you attend or your background, all pupils will sit down at the same time to complete the same exam under the same conditions. Some pupils may have been better prepared than others, but at that moment every pupil is in the same boat.

This especially limits the chances of cheating, which is not always the case for other assessment methods, such as coursework. Coursework can be more open to external influence, whether teacher or perhaps parent or tutor. Pupils may not all get equal preparation time for this either.

Exams are also relatively easy and consistent to mark (albeit that the exact standards could possibly be made clearer to all teaching staff). For pupils this means they can easily be given feedback specific to their work, and how to improve.

Furthermore, having a central team of markers – trained to national standards and whose work is moderated – ensures a mainly consistent approach. All of this leads to reliable grading, something which is more challenging when it comes to coursework. For instance, other countries which have a greater reliance on internal assessment have found that having more assessors can lead to varying application of standards. In New Zealand, the Certificate of Educational Achievement has been criticised in the past for instances where 25% of assessments were wrongly marked. A greater emphasis on coursework would require much more spending on education. It is unclear if such investment will be forthcoming, or even if it is, if assessment changes would be the priority for such money.

A further benefit is that exams teach pupils various skills which are useful in their lives, including in the workplace. The ability to quickly recall information, express clear understanding of this, and work to time deadlines are all useful aptitudes. In addition, preparation for exams teaches independent working and self-discipline, all of which will aid pupils in their future lives.

The current system also helps prepare those pupils who will need to sit exams in future. Exams are a key part not only of the university system, but also many workplace qualifications (such as law, medicine and accountancy). Without changes to these systems, removing or substantially reducing exams’ place in schools may limit pupils’ future options. This could potentially even exacerbate – rather than reduce – inequalities between different groups. If state schools lessen their reliance on exams, private schools may choose to do the opposite, giving private pupils a possible advantage.

None of this is to say that the current system is perfect and should not be reformed. Most SQA qualifications have a split between a final exam and some sort of assessment or portfolio. It may be that the weighting of these is not right, with too much emphasis on the final exam. This could be altered in various ways.

One option – certainly controversial! – which would keep the benefits of the current system could actually be to have more exams. Instead of an end-of-year exam giving 80% of marks, why not two exams at different times, each of which focus on different skills? Doing this whilst retaining a coursework element would give pupils more chances to succeed, and make a single ‘bad day’ much less damaging.

Equally, more marks could be allocated to assignments and projects, and these could even be assessed in a revised way. For instance, languages have spoken elements. Why should this not be extended to other subjects – such as History or Modern Studies – where pupils have to explain and describe their research projects?

Exams can also be used to tackle the problem of unconscious bias in marking. A blind marking system could be introduced for exams. This would mean pupils would no longer be identified by name/school but instead just candidate number. This can guard against potential biases (positive or negative) that a marker may have, as opposed to a coursework system where teachers know pupils.

The simple reality is that all forms of assessment carry with them drawbacks. Exams undeniably have weaknesses, many of which are mentioned earlier in this article. Ending – or even hugely reducing exams’ role – may bring certain improvements, but this is likely to be at the cost of new problems too.

The strengths of exams are clear: they allow for uniform assessment conditions regardless of pupil background, make it harder to cheat, teach pupils useful skills and help many pupils in their future plans.

By all means let’s talk about change and how to do things better. But only if we retain these strengths too.

Matthew Marr teaches history in Ayrshire, and tweets @MrMarrHistory

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Status Quo or Something Else?⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by George Gilchrist

The current debacle and furore around examination results across Scotland, and the rest of the UK, has revealed to many some of the inequities built into our education systems, especially for those who are already disadvantaged by lack of resources, where they live, or the school they go to. As someone who has been involved in Scottish education for many years, I have looked on in despair at the failures of our systems, and political leadership, who have professed a search for equity, and the ‘closing of gaps’ ever since our First Minister was appointed in 2014 , and quickly stated, “I want to be judged on what we achieve in education.” Alma Harris and Michelle Jones published their book, System Recall: Leading for Equity and Excellence in Education in 2019. In this they argued that education systems across the globe have inequities built into them, that make it almost impossible to close those gaps, and what is required is a resetting of our education systems to address the inequities they perpetuate, before any talk of achieving excellence in those systems can happen.

I believe that political and system leaders, in many systems, have let down learners, parents and communities in their failure to grasp some of the inequities prevalent in our school systems. The inequalities built into our exam structures being one of these. The exhortation to school leaders and teachers to keep ‘closing gaps’ in education, whilst presiding over an exam structure that needed to maintain those gaps, “to preserve its credibility,” is another. However, a blame game helps no one, leading to yet more political spats, at the continuing expense of those the rhetoric says we are all trying to help, our learners. Everyone should be judged on what they do, not what they say they will do. What is clear to myself and others is that the status quo, with regards to our approach to assessing and examining our learners, is no longer sustainable, or desirable.

The question now is, what to do? Change has to happen in the examination procedures, systems and organisations we currently have in place. But, what change? Professor Brian Boyd has already proposed some changes in his article already on this site, which is a great start. In my experience, any meaningful change only happens through an open and honest exploration of the issues, and possible solutions, by everyone impacted by the changes we seek. Imposition of a ‘solution’ by the person or people with the largest power base is doomed to failure. We need consensus, and to get that we need time, and dialogue to happen. This is why I am supporting the aims of and the people who are trying to stimulate such debate. I am heartened by the different voices who are more than willing to contribute to this, and that the search is on for views and experiences from other systems, in other countries, not just at home. At a time when the UK is getting more isolationist, we in education have to maintain an opposite approach.

Some initial thoughts from me:

Assessment is crucial to teachers and learners. Teachers have always used a range of assessments, formal and informal, to help them thoroughly understand where learners are in their learning. Since the publication of Inside The Black Box by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in 1998, teachers have better understood assessment for all purposes, as well as the difference between summative and formative approaches. The majority of teachers have a whole raft of assessment information on learners, and it is true that no one knows learners and their learning better than the teachers who work with them every day. Why then do politicians and sections of the media display so little trust in teacher assessments, moderated by their schools or centres, as evidenced by recent pronouncements around Higher, A Level, GCSE and BTech results? This was most typically exemplified by Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education (in England) appearing on national TV this week and stating that, if we didn’t have exams, “you’ll have had some schools, for example, who’ll have literally put in every child as either an A or an A* or a B.” This is not only insulting to the integrity of the profession, it also displays a level of ignorance about what actually happens in schools across the country, including Scotland. We have to understand that there are ideological, political, commercial and sociological factors all at play, that all seek to preserve the status quo at all costs, and which wish to downplay the unfairness and inaccuracies built into current systems. COVID-19, and the changes that we have had to make as a result, have exposed inequities built into the algorithms used by different Governments and exam authorities, and how they have done so for many years. To carry on as normal is not only not an option, in my view, it would be immoral and a betrayal of those most disadvantaged by the system as it is.

Many teachers, school leaders and academics have written about the profound changes that have already been made, and which should be made, in our schools and our education systems as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions. Harris and Jones, in a recent paper, talk about how school leadership has to change and respond to the new conditions we are experiencing. But we should not underestimate the desire of many to maintain that status quo, possibly because they fear a loss of power or the impacts on them of profound change. It should be clear that our examination and certification of learners has to change. The question is, what should we change it to, and how?

To decide that, we need to spread the net of consultation far and wide, including all sectors, and all members of the education community, including learners and parents. It is easy for those in primary education to think that exams and assessment in secondary schools have little to do with them, when in fact their connection is a profound one. Recently the push down of the demand for the exam tail to wag the education dog has been growing at speed in some areas. It is easy for some to conclude that exams are the be all and end all of the schooling process, and that everything should be geared with this in mind. The development of joint sector campuses, for example, can be a vehicle for pushing this agenda further down the educational experience than it already is, and is something we need to think carefully about. The struggle to include and maintain a play-based approach in early years of primary is a continuous battle with those who believe a more formal and academic education should begin earlier, as they feel this will help exam results later!

It should not be for educationalists alone to decide what the future of assessment and examinations should look like, but it is important that all parties do listen to the expertise and advice of the profession, then mix this with their own thoughts and ideas, so that we arrive at a system that is better than the one we already have in place. A system driven by the needs of all learners, not those of the system, structure or algorithm. When systems are driven by data and pre-programmed design features, it becomes very easy to lose sight of the individual lives that are situated at each data point. Why should any learner be disadvantaged because of their personal circumstances, outwith their control, or because of where they happen to live? It seems to me that it is not much of a system worth fighting for, when it deliberately disadvantages some learners to maintain its own credibility. I can accept that issues that have been historically built into education systems across the world, what is not acceptable is doing nothing about these when they have been laid bare for all to see.

So, the dialogue has begun, and I welcome it, and hope to contribute in some small way. This post is a first contribution from me, and I would welcome feedback and thoughts about this, or any other blogs or posts on the website. I also look forward to seeing and hearing contributions from parents and learners.

Together we can achieve more.

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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On self-evaluation, continuous assessment, examinations and wine-coloured folders⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Professor Brian Boyd
Emeritus Professor of Education at Strathclyde University 

Amidst the current furore of the exam system, I’d like to propose an alternative process.

First, there should be self-evaluation based on criteria which are shared among the teacher and the class. The more learners understand the criteria for success, the better the learning. In fact, it promotes deep rather than surface learning. I would propose that self-evaluation be introduced into the learning process as early as possible and that as pupils make their way through their education journey from pre-5 to College, University, Apprenticeships and work, they continue to hone their self-evaluation skills.

Second, there should be continuous assessment undertaken by teachers as the pupils move through the system. Most of this will be of a formative kind, i.e. designed to help the pupils improve next time. Grades or marks out of 100 are of little value in this context. The purpose of assessment should be, in the main, to give the student insight into how s/he is doing and, importantly, what they need to do to improve.

Third, there should be examinations, but not necessarily as we currently know them. Traditional pen-and-paper exams have surely had their day as the main way of assessing learners and judging potential. Open book exams have been part of the assessment system in many countries. The student can bring into the exam hall an agreed course book which s/he can refer to as they try to solve a problem set by the examiner. In addition, in this digital age, surely there can be assessment online which does not require speed writing and which is lively and engaging into the bargain.

Now, what would be the practicalities of all of this? Some readers might remember National Records of Achievement which were introduced in the early 1990s and survived into the 2000s. They “failed” because Universities would not buy into them. So Universities have to come on board and be prepared to base their decisions about who gets into their courses on a wider range of information and not solely exam grades. The learners need to be encouraged to take ownership of their Records. And, notwithstanding the current wave of nostalgia for the wine-coloured multi-paged folders, they have to go digital.

Finally, there should be the ability to include evidence of achievements which have been gained outside school, for example, in the community, in national award schemes, in charitable work and other forms of volunteering, and so on.

If we can see assessment as an integral part of the learning process and not as an end point, we might be able to ascertain to what extent pupils have become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens as set out in the original Curriculum for Excellence report.

So, let’s begin the debate.

This piece was originally published as a letter to The Herald on August 18, 2020.

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This is not a political statement, but Scotland is a conservative country. Take a look at education.⤴

from @ Exam Scot

by Isabelle Boyd

About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a hospitality school in Paris. It was assessment day and the students were on their best game. There were two sets of assessors. One pair were assessing the students’ knowledge and skill in the kitchen and front of house in respect of “knowledge and how to do”: the savoir and savoir-faire. But the other pair were far more interesting. They were assessing the students’ ability and skills in team work, in supporting colleagues and in anticipating issues before they arose. They were assessing savoir être – the “how to be”.

This experience keeps coming back to me. No more so than in the past few weeks during the exam fiasco in Scotland – and rUK.

The approach in France very much mirrors the 4 Pillars of Education set out by UNESCO. It makes me ask “could we, should we attempt this type of assessment in Scotland?”

I do not know the answer but I do know the current approaches do not allow all young people to achieve their best; to showcase what they can do rather than what they can remember.

I feel there is a place for a summative assessment process (i.e. an exam), but we cannot continue to put all eggs in that basket or favour that basket to the exclusion of others.

I’m looking forward to exploring possibilities with @examscot about ensuring equity and equality for all young people in Scotland.

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