Exam guinea-pig generation

Teachers feel judged on the results, but not as much as the kids. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
Teachers feel judged on the results, but not as much as the kids. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
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THEY have been called the guinea-pig generation. All year, the first cohort of fourth-year pupils to sit the new Curriculum for Excellence exams have found themselves at the centre of a firestorm as parents, teachers and educationalists raised concerns about the way the transition has been handled.

Now D-Day beckons. On Tuesday at 9am thousands of them will troop into gym halls across the country and turn over the first ever modern studies National 5 paper (the replacement for Standard Grade Credit). In the weeks that follow, thousands more will do the same for different subjects. The futures of these 15- and 16-year-olds hang in the balance. But so too does the credibility of the CfE, which, its critics say, has strayed far from its original aims, particularly in upper ­secondary, where pupils have been reduced to tears by heavy workloads and the fear of ­failure.

The vision behind CfE was inspired: acknowledging that education had become a treadmill of rote learning and regurgitation, a series of hurdles to be scaled as opposed to a positive experience and a means of producing rounded citizens, the new system was designed to free up teachers to introduce more innovative, interactive lessons and create a less exams-focused environment. By allowing schools to adopt practices which suited their own particular circumstances, it was also supposed to narrow the attainment gap.

When Scottish education secretary Mike Russell spoke of creating a context in which experimentation was encouraged and learning tailored to individual pupils’ needs, most involved in teaching greeted the idea with enthusiasm.

In primary schools, some of this promise has been realised. Although the Educational Institute of Scotland complains about the extent of CfE-related bureaucracy, particularly in relation to forward planning, teachers have been empowered to try out new ways of engaging pupils’ interests.

In upper secondary, however, there is no such sense of liberation. Instead, there has been a stream of increasingly bitter complaints about the way in which the introduction of the National 4s (which replace Standard Grade General) and National 5s has been carried out. Many of the criticisms, the bulk aimed at the SQA, are focused on timescales and workloads. Teachers believe detailed information about course requirements was disseminated too late (after teaching had started) so some of the work had to be redone to meet precise assessment criteria. They complain only one full specimen paper per subject was published, that there was a failure to provide exemplification of standards (a guide to what standard of work would merit an A or a B etc) and that the SQA lacked the resources to respond to individual teachers’ inquiries.

There is ongoing concern about the consistency of the exams, with some seen as closer to the more difficult Intermediate 2 than Credit (and some perceived as easier than either) and about the postcode lottery element of the implementation, which has meant pupils in some schools sitting a maximum of six National 5s, while pupils in others sit a maximum of eight.

But the greatest frustration has been with the number of assessments pupils are being forced to sit throughout the year. To add to the pressure, they are now required to pass every section of every assessment, meaning they could achieve 80 per cent overall, but still fail, which has upped the number of resits. The result, teachers claim, has been more jumping through hoops, less time for learning and thousands of stressed-out teachers and ­pupils.

“Some of the brightest kids I teach are the ones under the most pressure because they are sitting a large number of National 5s,” says one. “They feel they have done nothing but be assessed all year. There are kids who are outstandingly talented and they have looked visibly exhausted for the last six to eight weeks. They are knackered.”

Even more worryingly, there is no indication that CfE is 
doing anything to narrow the attainment gap; indeed – ­according to one survey – the fear of poor results has caused an upsurge in the number of pupils attending tutors which, at £25 an hour, are beyond most families’ reach. Opinions are split on the National 4s, which are internally assessed, have no exam and are awarded on a pass/fail basis. Though some believe scrapping the exam is a positive development others fear the qualification will lack credibility with employers and is selling children short.

“The pupils who are going for these qualifications are demotivated. They feel they are being written-off,” one teacher says.

It is the gap between the aspiration and the reality that’s proving so disappointing to all those who welcomed the CfE philosophy. So how did things go so badly awry? And – given a working group has already been set up to learn lessons in advance of the new Highers being introduced – is the original concept redeemable?

Scrutinising the upper ­secondary phase of the CfE is a tricky exercise because experiences differ so radically from place to place and from subject to subject, meaning that what is true in one classroom or school might not be true in another. It is also difficult to ascertain who’s to blame. There is a tendency to point the finger at the SQA – and there is evidence of poor management – but while teachers complain they didn’t get information on the courses on time, the SQA says it met every milestone set out for it by the CfE management board. Equally, it is worth noting that while the SQA established the framework for the new curriculum, the individual courses were designed by teachers. In truth, it seems the problems at the heart of the CfE implementation involve a complex mish-mash of failures including poor communication, a resistance to change and the tension caused by trying to impose a more flexible, diverse system on a grades-fixated league table culture.

If the CfE was going to come a cropper it was always going to be at the exams phase. Freeing up schools in different local authorities to tailor their teaching to the particular needs of their pupils may pay dividends in the early years of secondary, but in a society where so much depends on exam results, there ought to be some kind of equivalence of qualification and equality of opportunity from fourth year on. One of the reasons the SQA allegedly gave for not providing a greater number of specimen papers or a clearer exemplification of standards was that it didn’t want teachers to “teach to the exams,” but so long as employers and universities demand good grades, and league tables record which schools achieve the highest number, is it fair to deny pupils access to materials that can improve their chances?

“My job is to get pupils through exams,” one teacher says. “I don’t particularly like it, but my responsibility is to the children, because, as much as the local authorities and teachers feel they are judged on the results, they are not judged nearly as much as the kids are.”

Earlier this year, the SQA reacted to criticism by reviewing recent Credit and Intermediate 2 papers and identifying questions which could be used to help candidates revise for the National 5 exams.

This clash between the CfE ethos and the need to rack up impressive qualifications is at the root of several of the most deep-seated problems with the new system. When CfE was conceived, the idea was that after a broad general education in first to third year, most pupils would embark on a two-year National 5 or a two-year Higher, with only leavers doing National 4s in fourth year. But, says EIS general-secretary Larry Flanagan, over the course of pupils’ third year, anxieties began to creep in.

“They [local authorities] started thinking – right, we need to take a belt and braces approach here and get these kids a qualification in fourth year and then they can go on and do one the next year and one the year after that. The problem is, if you take that approach, all you have effectively done is change the name of the exams.”

Perhaps because schools are worried their league-table standing will suffer, there has also been a tendency in some local authorities to over-present for National 5s. But over-presenting throws up an additional problem: what happens if you put borderline ­pupils forward and they don’t pass? Standard Grades were designed so more able pupils sat Credit and General and less able pupils General and Foundation and hardly anyone left school with nothing. Because there is no similar fall-back position in the CfE system, some local authorities have decided pupils should get National 4 work out of the way before starting National 5 work, but the National 4 added value unit takes two to three weeks to complete, adding to an already-heavy workload. No wonder teachers say the “deep learning” aspiration has been affected and pupils feel they’ve been on a treadmill.

Add to this a perceived lack of support from the SQA, which struggled to cope with the deluge of inquiries from teachers (though the SQA says it hosted hundreds of meetings, seminars and workshops and offered local authorities the opportunity for teaching staff to receive additional Continuing Professional Development (CPD) training) and an alleged reluctance on the part of some teachers to move away from the traditional “chalk and talk” approach and it is clear there is much that still needs addressed.

The good news for the guinea-pig pupils is that few people believe the disarray around the introduction of the National 4s and 5s will have an adverse effect on results. Coming just weeks before the referendum, the Scottish Government cannot afford a hint of failure around a flagship policy.

The SQA insists it has robust quality assurance procedures in place and is confident national standards have been upheld. And teachers say the flexibility of the grading system – which means the percentage needed to get an A or a B is not fixed, but linked to the perceived difficulty of the exam – means the passmark will be lowered and good results guaranteed (although the SQA says it would be wrong to speculate about passmarks until the exam has been taken).

Meanwhile, the decision on whether to press ahead with the new Higher next year or defer until 2016 is being taken, mostly on a school by school, subject by subject basis.

A working group chaired by Ken Muir, the chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland has been set up to look at the difficulties teachers have faced in the hope that lessons can be learned.

Of course, many of the problems associated with the implementation will subside as the system beds in. In future years, teachers and pupils will gain in confidence as they have a clearer idea of what is required of them and they have greater access to past papers.

But – if the CfE is to remain true to its original vision – the number of assessments pupils are facing will surely have to be tackled. And even after the flaws in the implementation have been ironed out there is a broader battle to be waged. If CfE is to provide a richer, more fluid, less exams-focused education, there will have to a shift away from the league ­table culture.

As long as pupils, teachers and schools are judged on the number of qualifications they can achieve in the shortest amount of time, it is difficult to see how schools can wholeheartedly embrace the CfE philosophy no matter how much they approve of it in principle.