First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said Scotland is on a search for a “new normal”. She wrote over the weekend that when “the kaleidoscope of our lives is shaken there is an opportunity to see them put back together differently, and see a new way of doing things.” What could this mean in Education?
Never before has the schooling system been shaken up by events like now. Even two world wars had not stopped Scottish kids sitting exams. For years educational experts have said that the schooling system is too heavily focused around tests, which doesn’t take account of a rounded set of abilities and incentivises ‘teaching-to-the-test’; developing a system of rote learning that may not actually be particularly useful knowledge and skills for young people. Being good at passing a pencil-and-paper test in silence under timed conditions does not actually tell you much about how prepared you are for the adult world. Countries like Finland, where students sit just one exit exam at the end of their time at school, have been pointed to as an example Scotland could move towards. Surely the lack of testing this year is a chance to find a “new normal”?
Sadly, it appears as if the approach of Education Secretary John Swinney and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is to try their best to weld our new reality into the old normal, a painful exercise that will generate plenty of tears and even more appeals. While grading will be based on teacher assessment, the SQA have said they will “moderate” those grades centrally to ensure “consistency across centres”. Part of that moderation will include “prior attainment”, so that if a school with a poor record of exam passes suddenly improves this year, this could affect the result of students this year. Swinney confirmed on Thursday that the SQA’s moderation process could mean a student who is given a pass by the teacher could then be given a fail by the SQA.
As one teacher put it: “Imagine your teacher seeing the improvements, putting you in for a passing grade because *they know you would now pass*, and the SQA declaring you failed because statistically too many people passed this year…”
Another retired teacher said: “The only consequence of this ridiculous process is that teachers will, if they have any sense, simply boost their predictions to compensate for the SQA “readjusting” the grades downward.”
Barry Black, an education researcher, said the system “will further disadvantage already disadvantaged young people”. Not only are schools from deprived communities (which generally perform significantly worse) likely to see grades revised down, schools from wealthy communities could see grades revised up based on past years results. It seems like a life-time ago when the First Minister won a mandate in 2016 to make closing the attainment gap in schools her number one priority. For the class of 2020, the attainment gap of previous years could haunt their present. As another teacher concluded: “Social mobility? Not this year.”
Swinney has sought to defend the system, saying that the key elements of assessing grades will be based on looking at the progression statistics which teachers keep across the year and how that compares to the final teacher grade estimate. He said that there is a number of fail-safe’s in the process, as schools sign off teacher estimates, and then SQA sign-off school estimates. But none of this gets round the fact that “prior attainment” is part of the SQA moderation process. Also, some teachers have raised concerns about reliance on progression statistics, saying that since they have not been used in the appeals process in recent years their importance has been lessened, and thus they aren’t necessarily rigorous.
Larry Flanagan, head of teaching union EIS, has said they have “a clear view that the exercise of professional judgement by teachers is a sound basis for making this year’s awards”.
“Whilst the statistical measures being deployed by the SQA may add an element of external validation to the process, the key issue is the integrity of the estimates which should not be compromised by additional pressure from any source,” he added.
Putting trust in teachers seems like a solid principle to work from. We may find that teacher assessment may well deliver substantially different results than tests, but this isn’t something to hide from or seek to ameliorate. Teacher assessment is likely to be a more holistic perspective on student performance than exams. The difference between this year’s results and those of last year could tell us a lot about what sort of “new normal” we want in education, and it’s vital that the SQA makes this information publicly available, regardless of what grades they end up handing out.
But maybe we could be even more radical. Do we really need the grading system at all for school leavers this year? Would it be so bad if everyone was given a pass? The substantial drop-off in international students predicted from the start of next university term is likely to mean a lot of additional course spaces. Why not let all who want to attend university do so this year? It might come as a shock to the SQA, but qualifications isn’t really what education is – or should be – about.
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