Education must be about more than achieving the right grades

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EARLY August is a tense time for Scottish teenagers. Exam results plop through letterboxes, appear in in-boxes or even, these days, twinkle up as text messages. But why do these results mean so much? Does achieving a raft of A-grades at Higher and Advanced Higher have intrinsic value? Or is it purely about winning a university place?

Rod Grant is headmaster at one of Scotland's prestigious private schools, Clifton Hall in Edinburgh, and believes schools are too geared up towards producing university candidates, rather than rounded individuals.

He says: "We do not ask ourselves this question often enough. What is the purpose of a school? What is it actually for? If you follow our current thinking, it would appear that it is fundamentally founded on the belief that schools are doing well if their pupils achieve a set of excellent examination results.

"The logical conclusion, therefore, is that, above all, we should ensure our pupils' heads are filled with the required knowledge to allow them to pass a series of examinations.

"At the moment, our secondary education system is a protracted application process for tertiary education, and we are the poorer for it."

He says he has met many people with first-class honours degrees who are, he believes, "eminently unemployable", while many people who leave school at 16 with few qualifications can go on to become hugely successful – and he is keen to point out these people are not exceptions to the rule.

"Education is being damaged by the need to jump through academic hoops that actually curtail an individual's imagination and, in many ways, damage their originality of thought," he said.

University criticisms in recent years of new students arriving on campus lacking fundamental skills is, he believes, a problem of their own making, as it is their insistence on exam passes for entry that has stifled creativity.

He says the current process of school exams can be an unimaginative cycle of teaching the content of the curriculum, learning it, and then regurgitating it under examination conditions which, if pupils do well enough, will win them an A grade. However, he disputes that this formula really does represent success.

He argues: "My contention is that this approach is fundamentally flawed and actually quite dangerous."

Youngsters should be allowed to develop their creativity and their critical thinking, he says, citing other countries, particularly in Scandinavia, to support his case.

"Finland has been outperforming us for more than a decade," he says. "If you look at their systems of public education, you see one vital component which is different to our own. Examinations or tests, of any kind, do not kick in before the age of 16. This means that education from six-15 is allowed to develop without the worry of passing the tests."

Critics have long warned that too much testing risks provoking "teaching to the test", where teachers educate youngsters on how to pass exams, rather than actually gather knowledge for its own sake.

Testing at the end of primary school in England, under the Sats system, has been increasingly controversial in recent years, as it puts children as young as ten under the pressure of exam conditions. Parents have long argued that their youngsters struggle to cope with such stress at a tender age. National testing at this age does not exist in Scotland, and in unlikely to be introduced just because of the debate south of the Border.

However, just as much controversy surrounded the proposed new qualifications to be introduced in Scotland in 2014 as replacements for the beleaguered Standard Grade. Furore broke out last year when it emerged a fifth of teenagers could leave school without having sat any externally assessed exams.

Nationals, to be introduced from 2013, will be two levels: levels 4 and 5. National 5, only for pupils capable of higher attainment, will be an externally assessed exam taken at the end of S4 and graded by letter.

National 4 will be taken in S3 and assessed internally by teachers, without being graded, and it is expected about 20 per cent of pupils will stop at this level.

Many people were critical, implicitly supporting the concept that externally examined national tests were the best way of assessing a child's ability and, perhaps, buying into the idea that sitting exams is a kind of rite of passage – a challenge every youngster should go through prior to adulthood.

Mr Grant is not critical of exams themselves, indeed his school performs well in Standard Grade, Higher and Advanced Higher exams, a feat he puts down to small class sizes and individual attention. But key to his school's success is allowing pupils to carve their own paths and to think independently. "It's really important that children get the chance to question. I get so tired when children say to me, 'I read it on the internet'. Where? Who said so?" he says.

He is adamant that schools should not be focused solely on ensuring their pupils achieve the university-entry requirements that they require for their chosen career path, which he fears is sometimes the case.

"Universities should not be allowed to wag the dog – that is, our schools. We should leave it up to individual universities to work out how they attract potential students and how they assess them. Schools should concentrate on educating their pupils, rather than schooling them," he says.

He would like to see a new a period of "educational enlightenment" in Scotland, in which the system is driven by ensuring young people have the important skills they need for modern life, as well as knowledge created in the form of memorised facts they can regurgitate under test conditions.

"It is my contention," he says, "that if we worry less about league tables and more about individual development, then Scotland can become a nation of invention and industry once again.

"Currently, we are not achieving those dreams and those aspirations, and I, for one, am fed up with the notion that a good education equals five As at Higher. Why? Because it just isn't so.

"This is not 'pie in the sky'," he says. "This is absolutely achievable for all of Scotland's children, but we need to radically alter our view of what education is for and need to do it now."