Dani Garavelli: Testing time for kids and schools

As exam results continue to improve, pressure increases on schoolchildren. Picture: Lucie Husband
As exam results continue to improve, pressure increases on schoolchildren. Picture: Lucie Husband
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Transforming schools into more than mere exam factories is a slow process, but one well worth striving for, writes Dani Garavelli

AS I write this column on a sunny afternoon in the middle of the Easter holidays, my eldest son is having a day out. At Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. It is an indication of how much pressure he and his fellow fifth year pupils are under that this excursion is being treated as light relief. He spent the first three days of the holidays at school, where they are running extra classes, and the rest of the week in his room under a pile of folders, so at least this is a change of scenery. Who knows, maybe he and his friends will take half an hour out to enjoy a Coke and a chat.

This is not how I imagined his teenage years would pan out. I assumed they would be spent with me screaming at him to get off the Xbox and start reading, not worrying about whether he’d burn out before the Highers started. Yet, even as I am urging him to get some fresh air, there is a niggle in the back of my mind. For all his hard work, is he doing enough to get the results he needs to get into the course he has set his heart on?

As results continue to improve year on year, universities are raising the entrance bar, with Law now demanding 4As and a B and medicine 5As in one sitting. And even then there are no guarantees. The result of this relentless escalation (encapsulated in the annual photographs of students clutching their certificates and jumping for joy) is that there are pupils who achieve three As and two Bs and feel they have failed. How crazy is that?

Of course, my son’s experiences in an East Renfrewshire state school are at one end of the spectrum. I am painfully aware that, just a few miles from where we live, there will be parents of other fifth year pupils fretting over whether or not their children will get any Highers at all and fearing for their future in a world with few employment opportunities and a fixation with paper qualifications.

This polarisation is the inevitable result of our league tables culture. So long as schools are rated according to their exam results, with no account taken of their diverse catchment areas, those parents who can afford to will send their children to “successful” schools and the gap will widen.

Organisations such as the CBI keep telling us that this obsession with passing exams is failing to produce confident, work-ready adults, but it is culturally entrenched, which explains the contradiction in the attitude of many parents. It explains why, even as we criticise league tables, many of us seek out the schools that top them. It explains why, even as we carp about the stress our children are under, we pat ourselves on the back for giving them the best possible start in life (or feel bad because we can’t).

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), as many have acknowledged, is a laudable attempt to change this mentality. With the first three years of secondary supposedly devoted to a broad general education, the aim is for more flexibility in the subjects studied and a move away from schools as exam factories. It was hoped this approach would produce more rounded human beings, and it seems to be working well in primary schools.

But parents of those pupils who will, later this month, become the first to sit the new National 5s, the exams which replace Standard Grades (credit level), appear to be struggling to reconcile their acceptance of the ethos with an underlying expectation that their children will leave school with as many qualifications as possible.

For some, it is the postcode lottery aspect of the new system that irks: with some schools allowing S4 pupils to take eight National 5s and others just six, there is a concern that a proportion of children will be disadvantaged on the basis of their address.

For others, the sticking point is the National 4s, which replace Standard Grade (general). The National 4s have no exam component and are awarded on a pass/fail basis. Though exams are not necessarily the best way to measure achievement, it is easy to see why parents of those children who are doing them might fear they are being short-changed.

The same tension exists for teachers. It is a challenge for schools to embrace the CfE philosophy while keeping one eye on their league table placing. Knowing they have to produce good results makes them cautious.

The most risk-averse, including those in East Renfrewshire, have deferred the introduction of the National 4/5s until next year and appear to be changing as little as they can get away with (for example, my middle son, in S2, chose his subjects at the end of first, not third, year).

Then there are those schools which, keen to ensure their pupils are on track to pass the new exam, have upped the number of assessments, thereby leading to complaints of overloading. This is understandable, but is in direct opposition to the CfE ideal: a less assessment-orientated system.

It’s a lot to expect schools to implement CfE at upper secondary level without a concomitant shift in structures and culture. It has been tough for this cohort of students who are guinea pigs this year and next, when the new Highers will be introduced, and for their teachers. But it is clear that the pursuit of ever-higher grades is unsustainable.

If we want our children to get off the academic treadmill, and we want the attainment gap to narrow, then perhaps we – parents and teachers alike – need to accept that, for all the teething problems (and there have been many flaws in its implementation), the Curriculum for Excellence is a vision of education worth striving for.