Associate Feature: Unique opportunity to shape the future of qualifications
We all went to school at one point or another and that means many of us have strong opinions about what is right for Scottish education – whether or not we have children going through school – and we all remember our exam days, with a range of emotions.
The way we assess learners in the senior phase of secondary school is naturally a focus of those opinions right now and has been brought further into the spotlight recently with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills announcing that National Qualifications in Scotland are to be reformed, with externally marked exams expected to be retained.
The debate about what Scotland wants from its assessment and qualifications system is a critically important one. Qualifications provide society with a way of showing what people know, what they can do and that they are ready to take the next step in their education, training, or career development.
There are many diverse views on how to proceed from where we are now. Some favour a highly vocational approach, focussed on practical skills rather than the memory test of an exam. Others argue that the discipline of more formal assessments is essential preparation for life beyond school. And there are many other opinions that fall somewhere in between.
As Scotland’s Chief Examiner, I have a responsibility to ensure that Scotland’s qualifications system is fair and credible. The pandemic, and the need to assess learners differently due to the disruption in schools and colleges, has shone a spotlight on these issues and raised questions about the right approach for the future.
It is right that we look at these issues afresh. But, as I made clear when I attended Holyrood’s education committee recently, we need to avoid polarised arguments. That could mean a lot of heat and very little light, and our young people deserve better.
Indeed, there is already a lot more choice in the system than the current debate would suggest. A diverse range of vocational qualifications are being offered in schools and colleges to help prepare young people for further education, training or employment.
National Qualifications aligned to Curriculum for Excellence were developed by SQA with subject experts and stakeholder groups, including teachers and lecturers. Assessments for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses were embedded with breadth, challenge and application, meaning that while exams still featured, for many courses there was also continuous assessment and practical coursework. However, the removal of Unit Assessments by Scottish Ministers in 2016, following workload concerns, resulted in a greater emphasis on exams and less continuous assessment than was first envisioned. It is important therefore that we learn from this experience as we move into a further round of reforms.
It is not, as some would have you believe, a black and white choice between exams or no exams and anyone with a prominent voice in this debate has a responsibility to our young people to ensure there is balance and perspective.
Whatever mix of assessment we choose, having an evidence-based approach gives employers, universities and colleges the reassurance they need when making decisions about who can be recruited, enter their courses and join their training programmes, based on the knowledge, skills and understanding that individuals have been able to demonstrate to that point. Consistent standards over time also provide flexibility for individuals to access immediate opportunities today, and different opportunities later in their career.
As most people will be aware, Ministers have announced that SQA is to be replaced. The successor organisation will be charged with helping deliver a future model, but until that process is complete SQA will contribute to the reform processes for qualifications and assessments drawing on the skills, knowledge and experience of colleagues across the organisation, many of whom are parents, former teachers or both.
Collectively, we must all take this opportunity to engage positively in what Scotland needs to support economic recovery and build a stronger future, and to ensure learners gain qualifications which provide a passport for progression and opportunity.
If we all pull together – and, critically, give learners themselves a strong say in what should happen – I believe we can find the right way forward and be confident about the future.
This article was sponsored by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.