Scotland's teachers, and the rest of us, can breathe a sigh of relief over the return of exams – Cameron Wyllie

Cancelling the Scottish Qualification Authority exams in 2020 was a hard call which erred – possibly rightly – on the side of caution in the face of the novel pandemic: no one knew what the future months held.

School students will sit normal exams this year as the danger posed by Covid subsides (Picture: Niall Carson/PA)
School students will sit normal exams this year as the danger posed by Covid subsides (Picture: Niall Carson/PA)

The disaster that ensued – in terms of the volte-face in the methodology for awarding grades – need not be rehashed. Cancelling the exams in 2021 was simply a terrible and unnecessary mistake.

So it’s a relief to hear that our young people will sit ‘normal’ exams in the spring, helping our secondary schools further along the necessary path back to normality which started with young people returning to actual classrooms.

This decision has been taken in the face of some inexplicable opposition from a minority of teachers who say the exams will be unfair; of course, S4-S6 pupils aren’t “as prepared” as they would usually be but that would have applied regardless of how they were assessed, providing there was any intention of trying to maintain some sort of standard, particularly at Higher.

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It is obviously the case that educational provision has varied from school to school and individual to individual during the pandemic.

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Some young people have access to better study spaces and better equipment; have parents who are for one reason or another more able to give them support; have teachers who, faced with this new approach to teaching, created better, more interesting approaches (as a broad generalisation, these were teachers under 40) and have more capacity to get up in the morning, switch on their computer and learn, without the steely but sympathetic eye of a teacher or the amusing banter of their pals to keep them going.

In any case, the Scottish government has quite rightly indicated two measures of support for exam candidates.

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The first of these methods of support is that the SQA will, we are told, be issuing high-quality revision materials, focussing on aspects of each course, ie helping young people prepare for the exam questions they will face.

I wonder if they will consider – or the Educational Institute of Scotland teachers’ union would tolerate – actual revision classes held in schools over the Easter holidays.

It would be entirely reasonable to pay teachers well to do those, though they might be supplemented by volunteers: I’ve been retired for four years but honestly, my efforts at teaching the (accursed) “reading for understanding, analysis and evaluation” (what my older readers will remember as the ‘interpretation’) for Higher English are still pretty good.

There are plenty of old heads out there (and old Heads) who would be willing to pick up the chalk and shake off their tawse… just kidding, but better than nothing.

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The second support will come in the form of a ‘generous’ approach to grading. This presumably will be explained at a later date, and I hope it’s explained transparently and not in terms laden with latter-day educational obfuscation.

Their problem is, of course, that in 2020 and 2021, with the grades based on teacher assessment alone, results shot up relative to 2019, the last year of proper exams.

I can’t imagine that the results in 2022 can be at those sorts of levels, but it seems highly unlikely that the intention will be to return immediately to pre-pandemic levels.

I imagine that teacher assessments, supplied by schools before the exams, will provide some kind of guide. I sincerely hope the bank of statisticians at the SQA – an organisation whose credibility is again on the line – are already beavering away at this most knotty of problems (almost worthy of a question at Advanced Higher).

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Exam results matter. They matter to young people and their parents, and they mainly matter because they are currency. Most young people need exam grades to move on to whatever it is they are going to do next – employment, college, university.

They get you in, though they may not mean you will succeed. The analogy I used for decades was this – you earn £5 and use it to get into a swimming pool – but that fiver doesn’t mean you can swim. I tended to avoid extending the metaphor to the drowning part, because that would be morbid, but you get the point.

For the last two years, that currency has been a bit different, like Bitcoin is to a tenner from Granny. And the quality of the currency does matter.

To be honest, I’m not that bothered about the means by which John gets to do a degree in ancient history, but if Sally’s going to do medicine and eventually be my geriatrician, I’d rather she had a very clear understanding of biology when she arrives at university, and that requires clear, externally examined standards, particularly at Higher and Advanced Higher.

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As usual, it’s easy enough to caution or even complain, rather than provide solutions, but I’m glad the Scottish government has made this decision.

I hope most teachers are breathing a sigh of relief, with the burden of being so personally responsible for grading their students’ results, and hence determining their future, lifted – at least in part – from their shoulders.

And no matter what our attitude has been to the Scottish Qualifications Authority over the last 20 years of its ups and downs – see how nice I can be – we must all wish them well as, over the months ahead, they determine the fairest and most effective ways of supporting our exam candidates.

Cameron Wyllie writes a blog called A House in Joppa

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