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Has the pandemic revealed a flawed exams system in Scotland?

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By Natalie Pearse and Connor McCrone.

In Scotland, current educational policy requires secondary school pupils to undergo timed examinations which are written, marked and moderated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), providing pupils with a single summative grade.

This status quo system has been repeatedly challenged by the Coronavirus pandemic which saw the cancellation of exams for Scottish students in 2020, and now 2021. This has prompted an alternative method to be devised to decide final grades; an unprecedented action not even taken during both World Wars. It can be said that every revolution needs a spark.

Arguably, for Scottish education, this came from the consequences of Covid-19 which highlighted that successful educational attainment was still possible without the need for end of year exams. Therefore, the question must be posed if traditional exams are truly the best method to assess our pupils or, if a refreshed, Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) driven approach is more sustainable.  

The framework of CfE aimed to evolve education through making teaching and pupils alike ‘agents of change’. This shifts the focus of learning away from the bureaucracy of the outdated 5-14 curriculum and places the emphasis on child-centred development and a Broad General Education.

However, the exam system remained the same prescriptive method, showing a clear divide in ideology and implementation. This places pupils and practitioners in between a rock and a hard place due to how the content remains a means to an end rather than developing on the notion of why the learning occurs in the first instance.

With the core values of CfE focusing on Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC), the blanket approach of exams clearly has major flaws. Its universal method of every pupil sitting the same exam paper shows a clear contradiction to CfE’s philosophy of pupil-centred, individualised, education.

Furthermore, the very action of condensing a year’s worth of learning into a single paper undoubtedly neglects certain aspects of the course that may have been to a pupil’s strength. This clearly demonstrates the narrowing of the curriculum, which is unreflective of a pupil’s true ability as their grade is dependent on how one reacts to pressure, memorisation and timed circumstances.

It is then a case of regurgitating information from memory; playing to the strengths of certain pupils and disadvantaging others. Instead of equity in assessment, pupils are faced with a single system that only benefits some. This significantly adds to the already substantial stress placed on pupils and feeds into a system which is damaging to mental health.

Expectation to mold pupil ability and knowledge into the SQA’s preferred wording and structure places the importance on the wrong aspect of education, which should be the skills and learning itself. 

Exams favour students who are more adept to performing under pressurised situations and do not go far enough to support those with Additional Support Needs (ASN) and those with English as an Additional Language (EAL) due to the one-size-fits-all approach. Therefore, from the offset there is a disparity in equity at the very root of the system; one which needs to be addressed if it is to accurately reflect the ideals of CfE. 

A reformation of the exam system in Scotland has to have a strong foundational policy which is based on what education in Scotland stands for. It has to be amended to suit the needs of the individual, the teacher and society as a whole. In order to reform the exam system, first the policies that drive CfE must be examined. If we were to unpick how the current system is manufactured, it would appear that assessment as a whole is not reflective of the core values of CfE.

For instance, the four driving capacities are arguably not truly exhibited when a pupil sits down to an exam paper. It is impossible to be an ‘effective contributor’ in a solo timed exam or a ‘confident individual’ when put into such pressurised circumstances. These qualities which society strives for the future generations to showcase are absent in the testing system of today. 

Put simply, the exam system is not getting it right for every child. A reformed system should be centred around the idea of educational equity. There needs to be a new and improved exam system that is accessible for all pupils and is tailored to individual needs which, hence, provides equal opportunities.

Perhaps the cancellation of exams for a second educational year should not be seen as a negative change to the system, rather a prompt to re-evaluate the structure as a whole and find a better approach which is accessible to all. It is time to put exams to the test, and find a fairer way to assess Scotland’s young people.

Image Credit: BBC News

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