PARENTAL concern about the state of the exam system in Scottish schools is understandable. There have been disruptive changes in the past – some in the teaching profession still bear the scars of the ‘Higher Still’ transition in 1999 – but few as far-reaching and complex as those taking place at the moment.
Much of the difficulty stems from two large-scale changes happening almost at the same time. Standard grades and the confusing system of Intermediate grades are being ditched, and next summer pupils will sit the entirely new Nationals instead. Then, a year later, in 2014/15, a new Higher exam system will be introduced. Both these changes are part of a much broader revolution in the way our children are taught and tested. The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is nothing less than a step change in the way we prepare our children for the adult world. As such, it inevitably has its critics, many of them wary of any move away from traditional exams that test acquired knowledge in traditional subject areas. But criticism of CfE’s aims and methods is now being caught up with the inevitable practical difficulties of a large-scale organisational shift. The two need to be separated.
Let us be clear about where we stand. This newspaper’s concerns are not about the CfE reform itself, which has been a decade in the making and marks a heartening boldness of approach in Scottish education. There is no doubt CfE is a system that will better equip our young people for the challenges of 21st century society, as well as the 21st century workplace. It is no longer appropriate to teach a selection of subjects, each in isolation from the other, in the hope that the experience will amount to an education. Rather, we need to give each Scottish child an toolbox of skills – some technical, some intellectual, some social – that will enable them to make an informed and confident contribution to the complex world as it is today and – more importantly – as it might be tomorrow.
It makes little sense any more to aim pupils in their early to mid-teens towards specific professions and occupations. The fast pace of technological innovation and the changing shape of the corporate world mean it would be foolish to anticipate how today’s young people will make a living in ten, 20 or 30 years’ time. Rather, we need to instil in them the ability to adapt to roles in industries that not been invented yet, making products and services that do not yet exist, to fulfil needs that have not yet been identified. This is CfE’s aim, and it is a laudable one.
Implementation is another matter entirely. Education secretary Mike Russell has been right to resist calls for one or other of the new exams to be delayed – we need to get this done and done quickly so the inevitable interregnum, with its attendant anxieties and frustrations can be put behind us.
But Russell must address some very real worries among Scotland’s parents. They want to be assured that children at schools where the staff have been relatively unprepared for the Nationals will not be penalised with poor exam results. If this requires some massaging of the figures when marks from certain schools fall noticeably below expectations, then so be it. Russell must also ensure that teachers have the support they need to develop all the new teaching and revision materials required in this transition period. Changes such as this are always difficult. Everyone involved must ensure that none of the children sitting the Nationals next summer are disadvantaged by the simple fact that they happen to be the first year to do so.
It seems hard to believe, but the opinion poll numbers present compelling evidence. More than half of all Scots do not know how HIV can be transmitted from one person to another. Has public opinion really moved on so little from the 1980s, when Princess Diana confronted public ignorance by being photographed shaking hands with people with HIV to demonstrate the simple truth that it can only be transferred person-to-person in specific circumstances, such as unprotected sex or the sharing of needles by drug users? Perhaps we should not be so surprised – in last week’s Scotland on Sunday, a different poll indicated that one in five Scottish teenagers was unaware of the efficacy of condoms for preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections. If sex education in this country is so lacking, how can we expect the wider population to be well informed?
The truth is that we as a society have become complacent about HIV, despite the fact that in 2011 Aids killed 1.7 million people worldwide. Here in the UK, the public health initiatives that spread the word in the 1980s and 1990s have petered out as the number of cases has declined, but HIV still poses a serious risk to public health, with potentially devastating consequences for those infected. We must do more to ensure that ignorance is not a contributory factor.