The Highers: What Happens Next Year?

So, to recap: a pandemic happens, and the exams are cancelled in 2020. This is  an entirely reasonable decision on the grounds that nobody had any idea what was going to happen and public health, obviously, became the central motivating factor for everything. A great deal of faffing commences; the government in Scotland (and England) comes up with a ghastly and unfair way of working out the results, realises this rather late on, changes direction completely and just uses teacher estimates. 

Then the exams are cancelled in 2021. I won’t retread old ground explaining what an unnecessary disaster that decision was, but, in essence, it led to teacher estimates being used again, often based on assessments which bore a very strong resemblance to er….exams, except they were not externally marked, and only very occasionally subjected to any kind of verification or sampling: a local school near me had one Higher subject sampled and two N5’s (actually both very small subjects). So, in essence, for two years, if you were a student in S4, S5 or S6, your teacher decided what grade you would get.

Teachers have been amazing throughout this pandemic; they are neither trained to do online teaching nor provide final grades. Clearly, your teacher deciding your final grade is a very different phenomenon to a teacher who doesn’t know you doing it. Your teacher has taught you, they know you, they want you to do well; they may fear criticism from your parents; they may fear being too strict in their grading when they know other schools, or other departments in their own school, are not being so strict; they may, I fear, be under pressure from school management, whether it’s to be lenient or to be tough. Gone is the relatively objective, relatively level playing field of ‘the exams’, which, particularly at Higher, have been a touchstone of Scottish education since your granny was a lassie. And what has this resulted in?

Well, to stick with Highers, the overall pass rate shot up between 2019 and 2020, from 75% to 89%; in 2021 it actually fell a little to 87%. But the astonishing change is in the award of ‘A’ passes. In English this went from 23% in 2019, to 32% in 2020, to 42% in 2021; in Maths from 33% in 2019 to 41% in 2020 to 47% in 2021 etc etc. There are a lot of very happy exam candidates out there with handfuls of A’s and quite right too. The young people themselves can only do their best and get whatever result they are given. If these figures are a concern, they are, in my view, a completely predictable one and the fault lies with neither teachers nor students.

So where does this leave next year’s S5? And where does it leave the SQA, which is, in two years, going to disappear anyway? Will the pass rate remain at least 10% higher than it was in the last year of actual exams, and, perhaps more importantly, will the rate of ‘A’ passes decline back to 2019 levels (i.e. by up to nearly 50% in some subjects), will it level out or will it, good grief, further accelerate? And where does this leave university entrance, college entrance and employers? Is next year’s ‘B’ this summer’s ‘A’?

It is just possible that, with some imagination, all this chaos, which has meant so much unpaid extra work for teachers, could lead to some new thinking, particularly as colleagues line up to bury the SQA, and not to praise it. Whatever new organisation the government (and those from whom it is taking advice) come up with, it needs to ask two fundamental questions: do we want to continue to have national exams in the way we have had them since the late 19th century? If so, what are they for? 

In some ways, of course, getting a Higher in something is a recognition that you have done a course of work at a certain level and achieved a certain grade, a measure of your understanding of that subject. This is, I think, how teachers would like their students to view the certificate – as a consequence of a course, rather than its purpose. However, there is no doubt that most young people – and their parents – see exam passes as currency on to the next stage. Let’s say Archie requires 3 A’s and a B to get into his university course, and he gets that so he’s off to uni. It seems to me that that’s akin to him needing £5.50 to get into the Commonwealth Pool. But paying the entrance money doesn’t mean you can swim. Maybe – I hesitantly suggest – it’s time for universities to do more about assessing potential new undergraduates themselves; I have a vision – a rather pleasing one, I admit – of university academics slaving away marking entrance papers, so they can source ‘the right kind’ of students. In any case, I worry about some of this year’s successful candidates as they approach university, some of them never having done formal exams, and having had so much of their education truncated by the pandemic.

In this, as in so many parts of the Scottish educational jigsaw, we need a creative and bold vision. The Greens had some…well…interesting ideas about education in their last manifesto. Now that they are having a bash at actual governing it may be that they, and the team advising the sharp new Cabinet Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, can come up with ideas that will encourage and revitalise our schools, not least about the knotty problem of the exams in 2022. It may be.


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