EVEN before the 2020 catastrophe there were plenty of people calling for a rethink of our approach to providing qualifications for school leavers. This is often discussed under the heading of “exam reform” but that shorthand can actually be extremely unhelpful. It makes high-stakes, annual, end-of-year examinations seem like the crucial feature of the system, while also suggesting that any attempt to reform our approaches means a desire to “abolish exams”. We should therefore be clear that we are talking about assessment and certification, of which traditional exams may or may not be a necessary feature.

The first thing to ask, though, is what is it all for? There are lots of different ways to generate scores and grades, but what is the goal that we hope to achieve? What we’re really trying to do is identify and quantify some combination of the knowledge, skills, effort, progression and, ultimately, potential of young people, which sounds immediately complicated precisely because it is.

We then have to issue confirmation of this process, such as exam results or school leavers’ certificates, to enable (or ration, depending upon your perspective) progression to another stage of education, some form of training, or employment.

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At present, the vast majority of Scotland’s school leavers will have sat multiple exams in each of their final years of high school. National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications operate on essentially the same structure: one-year courses where grades are determined by performance in a final exam on a single day, with some subjects also incorporating a project or portfolio as a percentage of the overall result. The apparent strengths of such a system seem fairly obvious: everyone sits the same paper, on the same day, under the same conditions, ensuring consistency amongst all students, while anonymous marking and annual grade adjustments secure the credibility of the grades that are issued. By this thinking, our current system of final exams is incredible fair to everyone. Except that it’s not.

It is true that every student sits the same paper at the same time, but the idea that they do so under the same circumstances is a delusion, one built on the entirely false assumption that only the conditions inside the four walls of the exam hall have an impact on a student’s test scores. But a student who got eight hours of sleep in a warm bed doesn’t sit their exam under the same conditions as one who woke up cold during the night because there was no gas in the meter. A young person who starts the day with a healthy breakfast and a chat around the kitchen table isn’t being tested under the same circumstances as one who had no time to eat because they had to make sure their siblings were ready for school. Pupils who walk into the exam hall thinking through their revision material are not being treated the same as the those who go in worrying about the health of the parent for whom they are a carer.

These sorts of divides are not even particularly extreme examples — they are the stories that play out every single year in every single school in every single part of the country. But we don’t like to talk about it because the lie of the meritocratic exam system makes us feel better. We tell ourselves that the current system is fair because it is easier to believe the lie than confront the truth.

The high-stakes, make-or-break nature of the Scottish system demands that pupils perform to the best of their ability on single day — less than 0.3% of a full year. It rewards those able to jump on command and punishes those whose circumstances mean that their best day might not happen to line up with a national exams schedule. This leaves our current approach inherently weighted towards those from more affluent backgrounds: those whose parents can afford private tutors, of course, but more broadly those who are just far less likely to be coping with emotional, psychological, social or family problems at any given time.

Pupils from the richest parts of Scotland are more likely to leave school with five Highers than the poorest are to leave with just one. Those wealthy pupils also have around a 40% chance of getting As for the Highers they sit, but for the poorest this falls to around 15% — indeed, in the final “normal” exam year before the coronavirus pandemic brought massive disruption, young people from the most deprived tenth of Scotland were actually more likely to fail a Higher than get an A. We’d almost be as well just cutting out the middleman and giving grades out by postcode.

THIS is all absolutely fine if you think that wealthy kids are just smarter, harder working, more resilient, and have greater potential than poorer kids — but if, like me, you don’t believe that, then it isn’t hard to see why the “exam system” as we know it has to go. The link between deprivation and educational development goes far beyond the exam system, of course, and it would be foolish to think that changing the way we test pupils could somehow demolish the great hulking edifice of structural inequalities that blight far too many lives.

The whole point of being rich is to have advantages over others, both for yourself and for your kids, and no system, no matter how well designed, is ever likely to erase the link between affluence and attainment. We should not expect a certification system to untangle the deep threads of inequality running through society, but nor should we accept a system that is indifferent to that injustice or, at the most severe extremes, makes the situation worse.

We cling to our existing approach not because it is fair, or even because it is accurate, but because it makes it easy to ration success and access in ways that maintain existing hierarchies and class divides. This has to change.

So, what should we do instead?

First of all, we should be much more honest about the limits of our current approach even beyond its tendency to entrench the divides between rich and poor.

We need to remember that the point of the system is supposed to be to certify attainment, progression and potential and ask whether the current model even achieves this.

Is a student who leaves school with an A for Higher English, to take just one example, actually better than someone who gets a C or are they just better at passing the English exam? Does it actually make sense to award an A to the student who manages to perform well on one day, having scraped by all year, while a student who has been a consistent top performer but has one bad day is written off?

Since 2014 there hasn’t even been a proper appeals system for young people after the SQA abolished it. Does that sort of system ensure that we are rewarding those who deserve it, or identifying those best suited to a university place, or encouraging young people to exceed their own and others’ expectations? I would argue that the answer is, very obviously, no.

In addition, it’s worth remembering that it isn’t just the way we generate the grades that could – and, many would argue, should – change, but rather the whole structure of certification for high school students. We need to be prepared to ask, and answer, some big and complicated questions.

Do we really need to grind young people through an annual testing cycle, or would it be better to switch to a system like Finland which waits until they are leaving school? By removing annual exams in fourth and fifth year, we would at a stroke free up a huge amount of time that is currently ploughed into prelims, study leave, coaching students through “exam technique” and, of course, the actual exam diets themselves.

If we’re serious about giving students the best possible experiences and a world-leading education then surely those weeks, or even months, would be better spent actually teaching them?

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Is there really any need to force all students to be assessed at a single point or could we instead provide opportunities that allow our students to be assessed when they are ready? Such a system works perfectly well in many contexts, including the incredibly high-stakes issue of the driving test, where a passing grade (no A, B or C here) permits us to hurl potentially deadly machines around at life-threatening speeds, so why can’t it be applied to a high school maths qualification?

Do all subjects need to be assessed in the same way? In some areas a traditional style of final exam might be best, but in others it may be of no real value at all. Does it really make sense to use the same methods in English as we do in maths, art, music, physics, drama or computing, or is this just another feature of a system more focused on convenience and conservatism than validity or reliability?

Are there even, perhaps, simply too many individual subjects, and might it be better to redesign the system to assess pupils’ knowledge and skills using a modular approach within larger subject areas?

None of this necessarily mean there’s no place for things that look and function like exams, especially if they are part of a suite of assessments designed to accurately reflect students’ abilities, and no approach is ever going to be perfect. Systems that depend upon coursework can hand even greater advantages to those who can pay tutors, while those based on continuous classroom assessment can cause enormous workload problems that undermine the system from the other direction. There are always difficult balances to be struck.

FOR what’s it’s worth, here’s the sort of system I would consider for English, the subject I have taught for the last 10 years. Instead of a single qualification with a largely one-size-fits-all structure, I would introduce a subject area known as Literature, Language & Communication, which would offer a more flexible approach built on modules in key areas like literature (looking at different genres, eras and styles), communication (focused on conveying information), film and television, journalism, and even advertising.

Each module could be made available at two levels — introduction and advanced — with students able to study whatever combinations are best suited to their strengths, interests and future plans, although all students would be expected to complete at least one literature and communication unit at introduction level.

Rather than a one-year course, studies would continue over two or even three years, allowing progression in different modules as well as ensuring that students could be assessed when they are ready, rather than trying to force everyone through the same annual exam cycle.

At least some of every student’s final grade would have to be determined by ongoing work throughout their studies, and in the case of those pursuing further or higher education in related fields I would introduce a dissertation that could be completed through a focus on any of the available modules, meaning that one student might complete theirs on a comparison of two pieces of classic literature while another looks at the development of print advertising or the way in which the internet has changed newspaper opinion columns.

I would also retain a final assessment — this would, however, move away from the existing, Victorian approach and involve sittings across more than one day, with a range of resources available, and extended, real-world assessments tasks that stretch young people far more than the memory tests and hoop-jumping that define the current exams.

This would all represent a pretty massive departure from the status quo but, for me, would vastly improve both the experiences of young people and the quality of work that they are able to produce.

The good news is that in the aftermath of the 2020 results scandal, and as we emerge from the pandemic, there seems to be greater pressure for reform than ever before.

Political parties, teaching unions, parent groups, young people and even organisations like the Association of Directors of Education and the Reform Scotland lobbying group (hardly known for representing radical or revolutionary thinking) have called for some sort of change.

Then again, it’s always easy to say that things should be different when there seems little prospect of it happening; it is quite another to be willing to do the hard work to make it happen.

The question we need to answer is whether we think our kids are worth the effort.

James McEnaney is a teacher who has written extensively about Scotland’s education system. Class Rules, his new book from which the above article was taken, is available now

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