Scottish education: Exams mayhem shows SNP government still hasn't learnt its lessons – John McLellan

It’s a trope of parenthood that exams were harder in the “old days”, until being disabused by a glance at the kids’ recent past papers, followed by a distinct sense of relief that Highers are well in the past, along with a twinge of guilt that you’ve been telling them they’ve got it easy.

Use calculus to calculate the volume of an irregular solid? I’m sure I was able to once and, in any case, who needs to know how to multiply matrices?

I can still remember the little asterisk next to mathematics which signified that an O-grade was all my miserable attempt at the Higher was worth. Unfortunately, there were two other asterisks on my certificate where letters were supposed to be, which meant the university desperate to have me would have to wait another year.

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While it’s easy in retrospect to look for excuses, the responsibility was all mine, but I might have been grateful for a bit of chaos in the old Scottish Examination Board, but less so others in my year who were able to set off on their career paths straight from S5 with solid passes, and can enjoy the fruits of their youthful diligence by retiring a lot earlier than I’ll be able to.

It’s all very well being glib at a distance, but the reality of chaos in the exam system is a second year of anxiety for thousands of hard-working school leavers awaiting confirmation of results they hope will be their passports to a bright future.

If last year’s breakdown was understandable because of the speed with which Covid-19 descended, the algorithmic moderation process to protect the system at the expense of students from less affluent areas was entirely avoidable.

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And after last summer’s experience, it’s extraordinary that the situation now is even more confused; teacher assessments which would replace exams but then exams which weren’t exams in by the back door, centrally-set tests at different times at different schools so papers could be shared, repeated re-sits within the deadline to scrape a few extra marks, and now the veiled threat of reduced grades on appeal, presumably to keep a lid on the number of applications.

New Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville’s announcement that the Scottish Qualifications Authority would be reformed came just after Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that the SQA had her full confidence (Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/via PA)

At least the new social media trade in scripts and marking sheets has fired up a spirit of ingenuity which might inspire a generation of digital entrepreneurs more than anything learnt at school.

The extraction of Deputy First Minister John Swinney from the education brief last month was the political equivalent of the last helicopter from Saigon, but adding to the confusion was new Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville’s announcement that the Scottish Qualifications Authority would be reformed barely an hour after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament that the SQA had her full confidence.

Teaching has been so disrupted and inconsistent between schools that notions of a level playing field for all students are for the birds, and it’s virtually impossible for parents to have any real understanding of the effectiveness of the courses their children have taken.

Our three kids have four years between them and we have no idea if the English Higher programme just completed by the last Mohican bears any resemblance to that taken by his two siblings, other than they all had to read The Great Gatsby.

The truth for most parents is all that really matters is the grades and if they’re what’s needed; whether the last two years have been adequate preparation for higher education is for another day.

Falling school standards by themselves have limited political impact because they have little immediate effect on most voters. It’s different if home-schooling is visibly no schooling and parents are called upon to take up the slack, or if a failing system denies a young person a place on a cherished course.

As I’ve argued before, despite Scotland continuing to slide down the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings, average Scottish parents don’t lie awake at night worrying that their 15-year-old isn’t as good at science and maths as their English, German or Dutch counterparts.

As long as grades guarantee access to a good job, college or university, it’s them, not the standards behind them, which matter most.

At least that is the short-term, cynical political outlook. The long-term impact of a population who can’t count or communicate adequately is unhappy communities and widening social division, as well as a less productive workforce and an uncompetitive economy more likely to be by-passed for investment.

One of Edinburgh’s strengths as a business location is having the most educated population in Scotland, with 41 per cent of residents having degrees or equivalent professional qualifications, and just 17 per cent without any qualifications compared to 34 in East Ayrshire.

Although Pisa analysis does not indicate a direct correlation between high rankings and national wealth, or that throwing money at smaller classes or longer days will make much difference, it does show that investing in better teachers by boosting salaries to attract the best people produces the best outcomes.

This might explain the UK Treasury’s apparent reluctance to sign off the full £15bn for English schools recommended by the now departed Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins, £12bn of which was to be handed to headteachers to spend as they wished. Keeping children in school for 35 hours a week will make no difference if they are tired and uninspired.

No doubt the fall-out from Sir Kevan’s resignation will provide cover for the Scottish government – wait for the announcement of an increase in Scottish education spending of £100 per pupil – but the problems run deeper.

Having had 14 years to fix what was supposed to be a top priority, presided over the shambolic Curriculum for Excellence, and produced the mayhem that is this year’s exam diet, can the Scottish government really learn lessons? Must do better.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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