In this article, EIS national Executive Committee member Allan Crosbie writes in a personal capacity.
I’ve been an English teacher for 26 years and a PT for half of that time. Too often in all those years I’ve felt that much of my job is actually about being a clerk for the SQA and, like most clerks in the history of minions trapped in bureaucracies, I really resent it. This is heightened of course right now, but I’ll come back to the SQA’s mid-COVID treatment of teachers and pupils later.
What I find most frustrating is the superficial reductive meaninglessness of the current exam system in Scotland. It’s a machine designed to churn out successful test-takers whose chance at deep learning and creative self-enhancement has been sacrificed at the altar of high-stakes regurgitation. Its by-products are unnecessary stress and a disturbing lack of educational curiosity.
It wouldn’t take much to improve Nat 5 and Higher as qualifications. I’m not sure how it is with other subjects (and it would be good for other Secondary colleagues to offer their own suggestions as part of the future discussion about reforming the exam system) but in English, for example, the SQA could replicate the structure of Advanced Higher, making 60% of the work internally produced, with much more room for pupil choice and exploration.
Or more radically, and in my view much more educationally enriching, how about we simply scrap formal high-stakes assessments completely until the end of S6, like they do in Finland? Any pupil wishing to leave school before then could be awarded a teacher-signed qualification certificate, for different levels, in recognition of their achievement in deep learning activities up to that point.
And what would those learning activities look like? Well, this is where the other monolithic bureaucracy currently stifling Scottish education could come into its own. Education Scotland’s inspectorate wing should be done away with entirely. That’s right – there should be no school inspections. If Finland can do it and succeed why not Scotland?
Imagine Education Scotland got over its monomaniacal obsession with the assessment and moderation cycle (or are they calling it something else now on some new infographic?) and with pupils knowing what BGE level they are on.
Imagine instead it focused entirely on supporting schools to embed Learning for Sustainability and anti-racist education to help pupils understand and battle the climate emergency and the other deadly virus infecting our society, alt-right ideology and extremism.
Imagine inter-disciplinary learning related to those kinds of issues became a key feature of the senior phase and visits to schools by Education Scotland were all about sharing best practice on that kind of IDL and helping teachers improve it.
Imagine Education Scotland as an organisation created purely as a supportive resource for schools.
You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one… am I?
But wait, there’s more imagining to be done. Think of the consequences of these kinds of reforms. Pupil and teacher wellbeing would improve as the stress of the meaningless treadmill-walking and hoop-jumping would drop away in favour of a stimulating joint endeavour to open minds and improve the world. The attainment gap might just start to close because you can’t buy a tutor to help your collaborative skills, your lateral thinking and all the other creative ways of applying and demonstrating your learning when teachers drive the agenda rather than bureaucrats and test-setters.
Unfortunately, to scrap high-stakes exams and the inspection process and to give professionals true autonomy would require something else that Finland has and which our system fundamentally lacks: unconditional trust in teachers.
That lack of trust – and an associated lack of concern for our and our pupils’ wellbeing – is illustrated perfectly in the SQA’s current mid-COVID instructions regarding estimates. In the midst of a societal trauma, as we are trying our best to stay alive and to stay physically and mentally well, and to help our pupils do the same, what do the SQA see fit to do? They tell us to log in to an online ‘Academy’ which will tell us how to place our pupils in new grade bands that have never existed before and then rank order them within those bands. And all because statistics seem to matter more to them, even in a global emergency, than simply trusting teachers’ judgments and easing pupils’ anxieties.
What a missed opportunity.
In my role as an activist within the EIS, and in articles like this, I will keep fighting for a very different education system, where the wellbeing of people and planet are at the heart of everything we do. I hope many others will too so that, together, we can start the healing.