Mike Russell admits exam errors but won’t say sorry

Mike Russell said the process of implementing new qualifications under the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) had been 'difficult'. Picture: Robert Perry
Mike Russell said the process of implementing new qualifications under the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) had been 'difficult'. Picture: Robert Perry
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EDUCATION SECRETARY Mike Russell has admitted mistakes were made with the introduction of a new exam regime in Scotland’s schools, but has stopped short of apologising to pupils and parents.

He has urged those involved in rolling out the new system to “keep the heid” amid widespread concerns that the new national qualifications had left teachers with “unsustainable” workloads.

Mr Russell admitted there has been too much testing of pupils – something the new qualifications are supposed to reduce – but pledged that the pressure will eventually ease on hard-pressed teachers. “Everybody who is involved in this process has made mistakes. Everybody can think of things they would want to do differently,” he told Holyrood’s education committee yesterday.

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“This can be difficult and has been difficult, it has not been perfect, no work of human hand is perfect. But I think that there has been genuine good work undertaken across the board, by this committee right through to schools, to individuals, and that has produced results and that’s what we intend to go on doing.”

The first tranche of pupils to sit the new National 4 and 5 exams – which replaced the Standard Grades – came through with encouraging results earlier this year. The pass rate for National 4 courses was 93 per cent, while the pass rate for the more academically advanced National 5 courses was 81.1 per cent.

The new regime is part of an overhaul of class teaching as part of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which aims to make education more broadly based and focused on learning, not assessment. Teachers warned MSPs last week that Scotland’s schools still face “major problems” over the introduction of new higher exams this term because of a lack of funds, materials and preparation time.

But Mr Russell added: “We’ve got a lot more work to do, but we’ve had that successful introduction and if we ‘keep our heid’ and make sure that we continue to support teachers, then we will get through the introduction of the Highers, the new advanced Highers and we will continue with CfE.”

The extra workload being faced by teachers is “absolutely not integral” to the new exam system, the minister added.

“There’s no doubt there was over-assessment,” he admitted.

“I will want to be assured assessment pressures do not increase and indeed, they decrease over the next 12 months and at each examination diet thereafter. If we trust teachers to teach, then there should be a reduction, particularly in the unnecessary bureaucracy in the system.”

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, yesterday backed the cabinet secretary’s approach. He said: “We particularly welcome Mr Russell’s comments on the need to cut workload in schools across Scotland, and the importance of local authorities collaborating to deliver the recommendations of the Tackling Bureaucracy report.

“It is clear that this renewed emphasis is needed to overcome the current, often patchy, progress on reducing bureaucracy and lightening teacher workload across the country.”

He added that a commitment by Mr Russell to increase teacher numbers was a “highly significant and extremely welcome development”.

Most pupils will sit the new Highers for the first time in May, although many schools have opted to delay for a year amid concerns over readiness.

The National Parent Forum of Scotland warned yesterday that pupils who sat the new national qualifications earlier this year faced a “relentless” and “overwhelming” workload.

“The view from parents was that schools were taking very different approaches and there were few signs of convergence around a preferred model,” the group said in a submission to the education committee.

“Some schools seemed organised and confident... while others seemed on the back foot with stressed and unsure teachers failing to provide reassurance or credible information.”

Labour’s deputy education spokesman Neil Bibby told the cabinet secretary yesterday: “You have accepted there have been mistakes made in the course of this. You have said that there has been over-assessment. As the man who is ultimately responsible, would you like to apologise to the teachers, parents and pupils for what has gone on?”

But Mr Russell resplied: “No, what I’d like to do is to pay tribute to everybody who has worked so hard. Everybody has worked hard on this and it has been tough for a lot of different people. But in those circumstances we have done something that is worthwhile and is producing results for the young people of Scotland.”

His appearance coincided with the emergence of a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland on the introduction of CfE. It found one-third of teachers felt results from the first set of National 5 exams were not in line with their expectations.

In addition, two-thirds of teachers surveyed said that the introduction of the new curriculum was badly supported, and more than 80 per cent felt that no effort was made to help control or lessen their workload.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, in a submission to the committee, raised concerns about a “lack of a systematic strategy” for implementing CfE .

But Mr Russell said: “We have been in the process of a culture change that is, and has been, difficult for some teachers, but the whole programme is designed to support that change.”