Lindsay Paterson: Look beyond the results
WHETHER the exams are getting easier or attainment is truly getting better is beside the point – it is the curriculum and our whole attitude to knowledge that are changing.
Every year we have the same exam results ritual. Pass rates rise. Celebrations and denunciations abound. And someone writes ritually in a newspaper that every year it’s the same.
This year is no exception. Pass rates rose at almost all levels. The minister in charge praises pupils’ hard work as his predecessors have done for 30 years. Political parties with some prospects of power join in, so that Labour remembers to praise parents too, and in Glasgow claims that the credit is due to its policies.
The Conservatives, being somewhat distant from being in charge, introduce a frisson of criticism. They report others reporting that there might be some fear of what the party calls “dumbing down”. The Institute of Directors is more forthright in criticism, but still evades the issue. There might, they say, be a “risk” that qualifications are “devalued”, a statement that verges on the self-evident.
The people responsible for the system join in the generally celebratory mood. The teacher unions think the exams “robust” and that improvements are because teachers and pupils are becoming “familiar with the courses” (which, since someone says it every year, seems to be a state of perpetual becoming). The official body responsible for the exams also praises “hard work”, and opines that pupils value qualifications in a recession, which may be true, but does not explain rising pass rates when everything was economically cheerful.
But the stark fact is that we simply do not know. We do not have the evidence to reach any kind of reliable conclusion.
There are four possible explanations of rising pass rates. Since everyone else is speculating, let me indulge in some speculative scepticism about them all. One is better teaching and harder work. Turn this round. Would trade union leaders of, say, 20 years ago really say that their members then were not working hard enough? Would today’s leaders be willing to anticipate their successors in 20 years’ time by saying that today’s teachers have to work harder, so as to be able to explain the rising pass rates in 2032?
There is really no evidence that pupils in the past were lazier. What they did get and what pupils still get today – as David Raffe of Edinburgh University noted in this newspaper in one of the few evidenced-based comments yesterday – was the benefit of parents who were better educated than previous generations had been. But that was an opportunity, not a determining influence. Pupils have always had to work to take advantage of any benefits their parents might confer.
Then there is the explanation of better targeting. Allegedly teachers become better at matching pupils to courses. But the evidence does not bear this out. Take, for example, the crucial decision of a pupil whether to enter for a Higher or an Intermediate 2 in fifth year.
If the rising Higher pass rate is explained by greater astuteness in deciding to enter Higher, then logically also there ought to be a rise in the pass rate at Intermediate 2 as well, as the moderately able pupils find their true level. But in fact the pass rate at Intermediate 2 did not rise.
Then there is the claim of falling standards, which can be linked to the claim of better examination tactics. Falling standards have been with us, rhetorically, for as long as public examinations have existed (which in Scotland is since 1888). If we are thinking only year to year, the quality assurance mechanisms probably do ensure that this is not a plausible explanation. Since examination papers are roughly similar over the space of a few years, it is possible to check that much the same standards of setting and marking are being applied. There are only so many ways to test people on quadratic equations or the origins of the Second World War or the poetry of Liz Lochhead, understanding each of which is indisputably a valuable accomplishment no matter how routinely repeated.
Then, despite the romantic critics who like to claim we have too much focus on exams, it is hardly surprising that teachers learn tactics from that broad stability. They learn how to push pupils through successfully. That is really hardly to be deplored, any more than, say, is Andy Murray’s gradual learning from all his repeated bouts with Roger Federer how eventually to win when it matters. Learning tactics for life is a large part of what a wise – indeed, hard-working – teacher tries to pass on.
But this is where all the concerns converge – not on examinations, but on what they are testing. The evidence is no more systematic here than on the statistics, but there seems little doubt that we examine different things now than even three decades ago. The change may be summed up in two words: “skills” and “character”.
We now focus on skills to a far greater extent than ever before, and we no longer think of the education system as being responsible for developing character. Skills can, of course, be assessed rigorously. But doing so is not the same as expecting a pupil to have a broad, general and philosophical knowledge of a subject. Looking at examination papers from the Highers of 30 years and more ago, what is striking is that there is an expectation that candidates will have that broad background knowledge. Thus when a question on Shakespeare in a Higher English paper quotes George Orwell, it is expected that pupils will know who he was and will understand the significance of his ideas.
A paper now – in addition to not specifying Shakespeare at all – will ask far more about the techniques of the dramatist, and so will be assessing the pupils’ capacity to analyse text and theatrical setting much more than their understanding of the cultural context.
That then is not a fall in standards because it is testing different things – testing skills of analysis more than broad knowledge and judgment.
But impossible to assess at all is the gradual abandonment of the idea that schools are responsible for moulding character through the learning which they encourage.
There is no shortage of talk about citizenship and responsibility, but no longer is there a pervasive link with the other topics of the syllabus. No longer is it assumed that you can become a better person by studying Shakespeare or the minutiae of genetics, or indeed by learning in a practical course how to make beautiful and useful things. These are mere skills now, and the ethical matters are to be learnt somewhere else.
From that comes the feeling by some people that what is learnt is now less worthwhile, and yet in other people precisely the opposite. Whether the examinations are getting easier or attainment is truly getting better is thus beside the point. It is the curriculum and our whole attitude to knowledge that are changing.
The teachers, the examination authorities – and the pupils – are caught in the middle of all this. And whether the shift to skills from character shaped through knowledge is a better or worse philosophy of education is a matter of far greater importance than this annual festival of speculative comment.
• Lindsay Paterson is professor of education policy at Edinburgh University.
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