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by Rebecca McQuillan
27 April 2022
School exams system under scrutiny

School exams system under scrutiny

At last, the moment has come. This week, nervous pupils will file into school gyms across the country to sit their exams – the first externally marked exams to be held in three years.

In 2020 and 2021, grades were awarded based on teacher judgments, but it would be a mistake to imagine these pandemic-weary teenagers have therefore been sheltered from assessment. This may well be the most tested cohort of schoolchildren in living memory.

Sam Webster, 16, from Portobello High School in Edinburgh, is relieved to be doing formal exams after the experience of  his National 5s. “In just over one month last year, I did 21 tests,” he says.

And they weren’t just tests: they included assessments drawn from the shelved 2020 exam papers. Because they weren’t classed as exams, the pupils had no study leave, but were under no illusions about how important the tests were.

Sam recalls: “You felt stressed because you knew that was the evidence for your grade, even though officially that wasn’t the case. They said it would be based on the tests and your teacher’s assessment, but there wasn’t much leeway between the two.”

Kathleen Slattery, 16, is doing her Highers at Boclair Academy in Glasgow. She is also wearied by the endless assessments, which have continued into this school year. “We’ve had November tests, prelims in January, second ‘prelims’ [further tests] and now exams.”

Just because external exams are taking place doesn’t mean this has been a normal year. Ongoing pupil and staff absences have continued to disrupt learning, and classroom teaching has continued to be constrained by Covid restrictions.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has said it will be “generous” in grading pupils this year and expects results to be an “intermediary position” between results in 2021 and those from before the pandemic.

Plan B is in place again this year, with teachers able to submit evidence such as prelim results and other in-class tests for appeals or where a pupil has missed an exam or had it disrupted due to Covid or other exceptional circumstances.

Pupils have been given “study guides” in each subject, giving them an idea of the topics to be covered in the exam (though pupils feel this guidance has been inconsistent, with more helpful tips given in some subjects than others).

Otherwise, things are relatively normal.

Sam is doing five Highers, with the aim of studying medicine, and feels calmer than he did last year. “People are quite pleased that exams are coming,” he says.

“Not everyone – some people have had to isolate more than once so have missed a block of lessons. Some of my friends’ schools were closed for a number of weeks due to staff absences.

“But I feel more prepared than I did last year. It’s good to know that this year, everyone will be sitting the same paper at the same time.”

In future, however, ‘normal’ will look different from before the pandemic. Crises have a habit of shunting forward progress and this one is no exception.

In particular, the pandemic has added urgency to a re-evaluation of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in the senior phase of school – including how pupil performance is assessed. This is likely to be its lasting legacy.

Right now, though, the focus is on the thousands of pupils who are poring over their exam notes.

Lucy Hunter from Edinburgh has a 16-year-old son. He’s had two waves of prelims since November and is now about to do his Highers. Lucy says: “He’s laid back and not overly anxious about all these tests. They have been useful, in a way, to keep him focused.

“But you can imagine that some young people would find it very stressful.”

I didn’t want to criticise the school, as it was an impossible situation for the teachers; however... I felt education was sort of left behind

She thinks her son will be pretty well prepared for university – he will have the opportunity to do Advanced Highers next year – but notes that particularly for those heading to university this year, having covered a more limited school curriculum than usual may prove to be a bit of a disadvantage.

Another mother from Glasgow, who prefers not to be named, says her son struggled badly to motivate himself during his Highers year last year.

“He and a couple of his friends disengaged with the whole school process,” she reflects.

“I genuinely thought there was a chance of him dropping out altogether.

“We would have to be on top of him all the time. That was the really difficult balance to strike, between encouraging and cajoling.”

The first formal exam he sits will be an Advanced Higher.

She felt her son’s school was not good at setting clear expectations of the children, for example about being in front of their screen at a particular time.

“For me, it goes back to leadership,” she says. “I didn’t want to criticise the school, as it was an impossible situation for the teachers; however, you saw with the Nightingale hospitals there was this mobilisation of resources and I felt education was sort of left behind. There seemed to be no imperative from government about what needed to be done in the education system. I think the Scottish Government should have stepped up a bit and done more.”

Like others, she has been concerned about potential unfairness arising from differences between schools in how assessments have been managed during the pandemic, with some holding them in strict exam-like conditions, but others not.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute for Scotland teachers’ union, offers reassurance on this. He says: “Where students are unable to sit an exam, an exceptional circumstances award can be made, but evidence like test results has to be submitted for it and part of what the SQA is asking is what conditions it was done under.”

As far as gaps in learning are concerned, he says that universities are geared up to support incoming students. He says: “Work has been done to make sure universities are aware of the disruption this intake has had and across a four- or five-year study period at university, there’s plenty of scope to remedy a delay in learning.

“Students are by and large very resilient. In terms of critical knowledge and skills, nothing is irretrievable.”

Last year’s results showed a widening of the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils, an ongoing concern. One science teacher from Edinburgh says that in her experience, lockdown was most damaging for those children who faced stresses at home or whose parents were absent or didn’t keep tabs on them, as well as those who didn’t have a strong work ethic.

The mental health of pupils during lockdown has been a constant worry.

Even since being back in the classroom, there have been limits to how much she can do.

“Where I feel most thwarted in my efforts is that I can’t stand and look over a pupil’s shoulder and pick up their little mistakes,” she says. “You have to keep a 2m distance. I think that opens up a gap. Those kids who were always going to do well probably still will, but the ones who don’t know what it is they don’t understand – those are the ones who have found it harder.”

Pupils must all sit in rows, facing forwards. “They’re getting much more old-school teacher-led teaching,” she says.

One particular disadvantage for her pupils has been the restriction on science practical work. She notes that Advanced Higher pupils will be heading to university without having done any assignments – major pieces of practical work – which are a valuable preparation for university, combining two or three substantial experiments.

She agrees that children were “assessed to death” last year, which was “really, really stressful for them”.

There’s no appetite to go back to end-of-year high-stakes assessments

But she believes the experience of looking “holistically” at pupil performance during the pandemic – taking a variety of factors into account when awarding a grade – has been valuable and raises fundamental questions about the wisdom of returning to traditional high stakes end-of-year exams.

“Why should everything be about what happens on one day?” she queries.  “Exams are totally ‘fair’ in principle, but are they really fair in practice?

“I don’t think they’re necessarily the best assessment of pupils’ ability.” She’s not sure, though, whether Scottish society is ready to accept a different system yet.

Flanagan says: “There’s no appetite to go back to end-of-year high-stakes assessments.

“The Scottish system was never as high stakes as the English system, but it’s only really in the British Isles you have fourth, fifth and sixth year exams. Most European countries have a leaver’s exam you move towards.”

That the biggest change now in the pipeline. Scotland’s education system was widely felt to be in need of reform before the pandemic. The nation was not doing impressively in the international PISA assessment, which looks at attainment in reading, maths and science, and progress on closing the attainment gap was sluggish.

The SNP’s opponents see education as its weak flank and accuse the Scottish Government of squandering Scotland’s long-standing reputation as an education powerhouse. Even the Prime Minister has been at it, suggesting in parliament last month that “Scotland’s once glorious record” was “falling behind”.

Strip away the politics, however, and the picture is rather more mixed. A review of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence by the OECD, commissioned prior to the pandemic but which reported last year, backed the system, noting that within Scotland it “continues to be a bold and widely supported initiative” and was viewed internationally as “an inspiring example equated with good curriculum practice”.

There is no denying, however, that inspiring as the vision may be, the implementation has been less so. Early complaints about the sheer level of bureaucracy the new system generated for teachers may have receded, but worries have surfaced about other things, such as the narrowing of subject choices.

The OECD has itemised the changes needed so that schools can better deliver on the vision and its recommendations have now been accepted in full by the education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville.

They fall into five categories: reassessing the vision of CfE in the light of recent educational trends; better measurement and evaluation of how well it’s working; clarifying who is responsible for what within the system; better aligning assessment and qualifications, finding a better balance between breadth and depth of learning; and increasing the capacity for developing the curriculum.

The Scottish Government has also announced the replacement of the SQA with a new qualifications body and the reform of Education Scotland, which is responsible for ensuring quality and improvement in education.

But perhaps most eye-catching is the idea that Scotland’s exam system should change, a proposal catalysed by the pandemic.

The Scottish Government has said it will develop new national qualifications and reform exams, consulting widely on how the new system should work.

This came partly in response to a report by Professor Gordon Stobart of Oxford University setting out options for the future of school assessment. Prof Stobart observed that having three consecutive years of exams S4-S6 could limit the depth and breadth of teaching and learning, and suggests ending National 5s in S4, replacing them instead with a school graduation certificate. Another potential reform would be to develop an S4-S6 qualification system based on a combination of exams and teacher assessment.

Somerville has appointed Louise Hayward, professor of educational assessment and innovation at Glasgow University, to lead a group advising ministers on the reform. Hayward has stressed that the voices of young people will be “listened to and heard”.

Kathleen likes the idea of a system that takes both exams and performance during the year into account when awarding grades. Over the last two years, she has felt “bombarded by tests” and wouldn’t want that to be a feature of a new system, but likes the principle of assessing performance in other ways besides external exams: “I like it because it means you’re having to work harder throughout the year instead of cramming it in at the end.”

Right now, though, invigilators are dusting off their stopwatches – the exams are about to start.

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