A sign for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), a body which is to be scrapped in the wake of a major review of education

In the sixth part of a series exploring how life in Scotland has been changed by the pandemic, Ben Wray examines how education could be changed in its wake

SCOTLAND’S schools had never experienced anything like the pandemic before. The exam system continued as normal through two world wars, but it did not make it through the Covid years of 2020 and 2021.

The trials and tribulations of the pandemic for teachers, students and parents have been hard, but it’s in the toughest moments that you learn the most. What has the pandemic taught us about Scotland’s education system?

The grading debacle

SO much has happened over the course of the pandemic that it is easy to forget that one of the most remarkable and successful school student protests in Scottish history took place. In August 2020, students demonstrated across the country with homemade banners bearing messages such as “Students not stats”, “My postcode should not define me” and “SQA: class discrimination”.

The uproar was against the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s system of algorithmic “moderation”. It uses this every year, but in 2020 it was applied to teacher assessments, which replaced normal exams. As it turned out, teacher assessments were much more favourable to students from deprived communities than the exam system, meaning when they were “moderated” based on a school’s exam results in previous years, the discrepancy was very large indeed.

A sign for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), a body which is to be scrapped in the wake of a major review of education

The Higher pass rate for pupils from postcodes in the poorest fifth of Scotland were reduced by 15.2% between teacher assessment and SQA moderation, while it was reduced by just 6.9% for pupils living in the wealthiest fifth of the country. One formerly straight A student from a deprived area, who ended up with Cs and Ds after moderation, said: “Somehow I’ve failed an exam I didn’t sit.”

After initially defending the moderated results, the Scottish Government quickly U-turned and went back to the initial teacher assessments. The student protesters had won. But have any lessons been learned from the 2020 grading fiasco for the future of Scottish education?

James McEnaney, journalist and author of Class Rules: The truth about Scottish Schools, told us that although there is an appetite for change among teachers, the “institutions that run Scottish education” have “an obsession with getting back to normal”.

“The 2020 mess-up came from the SQA looking at the exam results of previous years and saying ‘that must be right, the teacher assessments must be wrong’,” he said. “They couldn’t conceive of the possibility that the teacher assessments might be a better reflection of the real ability of pupils and it might be the exams which are exaggerating the poverty-related attainment gap.”

READ MORE: How Covid has made a rethink of Scotland's local government a necessity

Closing the attainment gap has been a key aim of the Scottish Government for years, and the gap did narrow dramatically in 2020 and 2021 (when a system of “demonstrated attainment” was used rather than exams, which also proved to be controversial) compared to 2019. However, exams are set to come back this year, despite the fact the school year has been significantly disrupted by the arrival of Omicron. Will the attainment gap simply return to pre-Covid levels?

The SQA has said it is “prepared to be more generous in our approach to grading than in a normal year”, explaining that the results will be an “intermediary position” between last year’s results and the pre-pandemic results. For McEnaney, who previously worked as a secondary school teacher, this is yet more evidence that the grading system has “lost all credibility”.

“It sounds very much like they want to find an attainment gap halfway house between the pre-Covid exam results and the teacher assessment based results,” he says. “It should make things perfectly clear to everyone that this is about political choice.”

The Scottish Government announced plans to reform the exams and qualifications system in October, with a review also ongoing over the replacement of the SQA and reform of Education Scotland led by Professor Ken Muir of the University of the West of Scotland.

John Davis, professor of education at the University of Strathclyde, told The National there is a “real opportunity for a sea change”.

"It's the right time to ask big questions,” he says.

“We have this top-down performance indicator culture – why do we not trust professionals? Most research shows putting trust into the hands of educators is the way forward. So why don’t we trust them and instead have all these systems of control?

“And is the attainment gap what it is because exams are a terrible way to assess people, and is that why so many working class kids can go in to further education and do really well, because they do more continuous assessment in the colleges?

“These are the sort of questions we need answers to, because we can’t just go back to the status quo.”

Teacher burnout

ANOTHER issue accentuated by the pandemic is teacher burnout.

A survey by the EIS union found that seven in 10 teachers are stressed “most or all” of the time, with half describing their level of wellbeing at work as “very poor”. Some 4369 teachers (5.7%) left the profession in Scotland in 2020, the highest percentage for the past five years.

Teachers dropping out of the sector increases the problem of teacher shortages, an especially acute issue in rural areas. The Scottish Government aims to recruit 3500 additional teachers in this parliamentary term, partly to address current shortages and partly to reduce the burden on current teachers, so they have less contact time with students and more time for preparation. Contact time is a “critical issue”, according to McEnaney.

“The entire system falls apart the second teachers stop doing about 15 hours a week of free labour,” he says. “In Scotland the amount of time teachers spend in front of students is higher than every other OECD country bar Costa Rica, and that contributes massively to staff burnout.”

The Scottish Government wants to reduce contact time by 90 minutes per week for all teachers by the start of the 2022/23 school year, but delivering that will not be easy. It’s complex because it’s about having the teachers in the parts of the country where they are needed and teaching the subjects that they are needed for,” McEnaney (above) says. “On Arran, where I used to teach, there is one music teacher, so there’s no-one who can take the class if you were to cut his contact time.”

For Davis, the problem of burnout is as much about reducing the amount of assessment teachers have to do as it is about increasing the preparation time. “We over-assess,” he argues. “We should have responded to the pandemic by taking all the pressure off teachers when it comes to assessments but instead we put more pressure on them and burnout is the result.

“Headteachers have these big lists of performance indicators they need to provide to their bosses to show them everything is going well. It makes it technocratic – about bureaucracy – and that’s not what teaching is about.”

The early years

PART of the problem may be that we have too-high expectations of what schools can achieve in reducing educational inequality. The attainment gap is as much about poverty as it is about schools. One study found that children growing up in poverty were on average 13 months behind in vocabulary skills and 10 months behind in problem solving at school entry.

Tackling inequality in the early years is therefore of vital importance. The expansion of free hours of childcare to 30 per week during school term time (22 hours if taken all-year round) for all three and four-year-olds was delayed by the pandemic but officially started in August 2021.

The Scottish Government is investing more than £1 billion into childcare in 2021/22 to fund the extra hours, and this is perhaps the one area of local government where staffing is substantially expanding. Nonetheless, there remain significant questions over whether the money is enough to meet demand and maintain quality.

A sign for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), a body which is to be scrapped in the wake of a major review of education

Some 200 private nurseries wrote to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last month to say they are “struggling to survive” on the free hours funding given to them by councils. They claim the council gives more money to local authority childcare providers than private-sector ones, leading to staff jumping ship to where pay rates are higher.

Cosla, the local authority body, responded that all providers are given enough money to pay at least the real living wage, but that councils will look at “strengthening rates setting processes”.

Local authority providers paid better wages and had more staff with an early years qualification than the private sector long before the 30 free hours were introduced. Davis, who teaches early years professionals, says more needs to be done to increase levels of training and staff pay across the sector.

“I get feedback from people I train who say there’s lots of highly-qualified staff who are retiring and there are not enough trained staff coming through the system, which puts pressure on the staff to child ratios,” he says.

“To make early years attractive as a career you need to substantially raise the pay and make the pathways for qualifications more accessible and affordable. It doesn’t make sense that qualified early years professionals should be paid so much less than schoolteachers are.”

The Scottish Government has responded by establishing a one-off grant fund for private and third-sector providers up to £4500. While the grant might help keep some afloat, it’s not clear how it will help ensure quality is not compromised as childcare provision expands.

Difficult questions

MOST agree that the move to 30 free hours childcare was the right one, the question now is how to most effectively delivery it. The issues facing schools are not so straightforward.

The SQA fiasco has raised fundamental questions about whether the grading system is an accurate reflection of pupil ability, or if it is actually keeping working-class children down. On a deeper level, it has forced us to ask what is the purpose of assessments, grades and qualifications: is it a rationing system for university places, or does this system have an intrinsic value beyond that?

None of these questions has an easy answer but it’s only right that genuine time and effort is put into finding the solutions. If the education system is fundamentally flawed, we need to know it and address it. Blaming all the problems in schools on the pandemic is only a recipe for shutting down debate.