Education Secretary John Swinney has created the expectation of a major reversal on the SQA pupil grading system when he speaks to the parliament on Tuesday.
“These are unprecedented times and as we have said throughout this pandemic, we will not get everything right first time,” he said yesterday.
Politicians willing to admit to mistakes and change their mind deserve a bit of credit, as long as the lessons they take are rooted in the substance of the issue, and are not merely about the best way of keeping up appearances. When Swinney speaks on Tuesday, there should be reflections not just on this year’s debacle, but on lessons to learn in how the schools system should change permanently: greater trust placed in teachers; the stress placed on exams in the system; and the purpose of the institutions built up around the school – including the SQA – should all be on the table going forward.
If the SQA grading row is reduced to being an isolated problem of the pandemic, it will be missing the point. This crisis has revealed a major divide running along class lines between teacher assessment and the exam-based grading system; there is no way to reconcile that gap which does not involve asking difficult questions about the system itself. For instance, let’s say Swinney announces on Tuesday that he has changed his mind and decided that the results will be fully based on teacher estimates, and thus the outcome is the poverty-related attainment gap is substantially reduced this year. What happens next year if exams take place again, and the attainment gap goes back to pre-pandemic levels? The question of the role of teacher assessment going forward has to be part of the debate about the long-term fall-out of this episode.
It’s not like these questions about the school system were not already there. Ever since Curriculum for Excellence was introduced in 2010, countless teachers have told me that the spirit of it is good in principle, but that it is under-mined in practise by high-stakes exams. The introduction of National Standardised Assessments in P1, P4, P7 and S3 in 2017 was seen as a further move towards a focus on pencil and paper performance that could be monitored at a top-down, management level. The case of the Finnish model – with it’s one end-of-school exam, no standardised assessments, no rankings or comparisons between schools and regions – which has among the best PISA ratings in the world and the lowest gap in performance between weakest and strongest pupils has often been raised as an alternative way forward for Scotland. Not that those international rankings concern the Finns too much.
“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” Pasi Sahlberg, a Professor of Education Policy who has worked as a teacher and in Finland’s Education Ministry has said. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”
Education should be fundamentally about learning, not grading; the difference is critical. Culture changes are not easy and take-time, but you can only begin if you are moving in the right direction; the Finns developed their approach as a key part of an economic recovery plan in the 1970s. There is a chance for the Scottish Government to do the same; to use this crisis as a moment not to cover-up failures, but to throw open the doors to new possibilities. It was bureaucratic, centralised, exam-results obsessed management systems that got them into this mess; if Swinney wants to get out of it he will have to think differently.
With the opposition circling like vultures ahead of a vote of no confidence in the Education Secretary when parliament returns this week, simply addressing the immediate issues raised by this crisis may not be enough to save Swinney’s job. Showing a genuine desire to change the system over the long-term is needed.
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