This Exam Calamity

Well, Shirley-Anne Somerville has got off to a cracking start as Cabinet Secretary for Education, promising, among other things, a ‘review’ of Education Scotland and the SQA. To be honest, I hope the word ‘review’ is being used in its broadest sense with regard to Education Scotland: is it possible to say I’m getting Rentokil in to ‘review’ the mice? In the course of the last week I have spoken, coincidentally, to three senior members of staff in Edinburgh state schools. None of them was able to name a single useful thing Education Scotland has done in the past year. When I asked one of them, a clever committed person in charge of her school’s efforts to close the attainment gap, how many people worked for Education Scotland she said ‘Oh I know it’s a lot. Like 60 or 70.’ Actually it’s 369. So, I suggest the review should extract the inspectors, tell them they are an independent body again, then send the rest of the employees of Education Scotland – well, those of them who are seconded qualified teachers – back into the classroom, along with the 3,500 new teachers Ms Somerville is promising anyway, and say, a thousand more, paid for with the money saved by this radical ‘review’ of Education Scotland.

But, sigh, the SQA is a different beast. Teachers understand what the SQA does, and, despite what the Greens may think, we need exams, in part because they give us important measures as to how schools are doing, but mainly because they give our young people gold standard qualifications on a level playing field. Well, they do in most years.

The exams this year are a calamity, and a calamity that was completely predictable from the moment it was decided to cancel the 2021 diet way back in December. Instead of making it clear to young people, their parents and their teachers what was going to happen – an exam diet has a fixed clarity – there  was a great blithering and faffing which has led, inevitably now that Covid is more controlled, to schools setting…exams. In fact, most Fifth Year students are doing more or less what they would have done anyway, but with several key differences which have stressed out the whole cohort and make their results, hard fought though they will be, open to critical scrutiny as to their worth, their validity. 

Firstly, schools are often using the same papers, many of them supplied by the SQA, but using them at different times, as if the whole world of social media was a phenomenon unknown to 17 year olds, rather than an essential part of their everyday life. Yes, of course, it’s bad for one kid to tell another in a different school what’s in the exam, but it was obviously going to happen. 

Secondly, the exams are being spaced out in different ways in different schools. The Higher English exam at my local school is being done in three parts in three separate weeks. No one will convince me that that’s the same thing as doing the three bits on the same day. It’ll be easier for many and harder for a few, I am guessing, but it’s different.

Finally on this, I am hearing of situations in which young people are sitting exams, not doing well, and then being offered a chance to do another exam to see if they do better. Given the lack of clarity about how the SQA (and the Government) are expecting teachers to assess, this, astonishingly, may even be allowable. No wonder everyone actively involved in education is seething and fearing that these may not be seen as ‘qualifications’ in the same breath as their older siblings’ exams were.

I am in awe of teachers in Scotland just now. They have been through eighteen months where every facet of their professionalism and creativity as educators has been tested and tested again. Usually, in secondary schools, in the summer term, the young people go on exam leave, returning to school to do examinations which are set, invigilated and marked by the SQA. Their teachers carry on teaching the first three year groups and have a bit of development time; some of them, of course, go home to mark SQA exams for a bit of professional learning and a bit of cash. Currently, those same teachers are setting, invigilating and marking exams then using them as the basis to work out the grades of the very pupils they have spent the past year or years teaching towards that exam. In some local authorities, because teaching time has been so eroded by the pandemic, they have not even been given the breathing space of exam leave. I have to say I do not think I could have done this myself.

Amusingly (well, I have a wry smile to save myself from screaming) schools have paid the SQA for exam entries this year. If Shirley-Anne Somerville wants this jaded and battered and vital profession to believe in her, I suggest getting that money back from the SQA and placing it firmly in the hands of Scotland’s teachers. How about a tax-free grand each in the last pay packet of the school year? You know, during my own career I think I worked hard, but I never woke up in the night worried about work. Why is it, nearly four years into retirement, I waken gnashing my teeth, thinking about the state of Scotland’s schools and the pressure that teachers and Head Teachers have been placed under recently, much of which could easily have been avoided.


1 Comment

  1. Great piece. As the SQA has said schools can assess the very best examples of pupils’ work up to end of term, it’s apparently valid to have multiple stabs. Something not every school can offer. Also, not good for mental health to have seemingly infinite exams.


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