Proposed radical changes to school examinations putting the ‘cat amongst the pigeons’

A report last week on the examination system in Scotland has also put the ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ across the UK.   The Scottish Government commissioned the OECD to look closely at the education system in Scotland with a view to making further reforms. The latest result  is ‘Upper-secondary education student assessment in Scotland’ (OECD 31st August 2021).  Whilst endorsing Scotland’s existing ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ strategy, it makes a compelling case for reeling back on the number of examinations. This particularly affects the examinations at age sixteen.  The report compares examination systems in several different countries and concludes that Scotland, and the UK in general, has too many examinations.  With many voices across the rest of the UK looking to abolish state examinations at sixteen (National 5 in Scotland and GCSEs elsewhere), the government in England soldiers on with returning to a process that failed badly at the COVID challenge.  Unfortunately, it looks like the idea of equality of opportunity and fairness might be lost in the dust thrown up by the examination debate. We must ask ourselves if there will be a level pitch for equality and fairness when the dust settles.

See also TEFS 2nd July 2021 ‘Focus on education in Scotland: It’s a lang road’ and 15th January 2021 ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’.

The OECD report points to more consideration being given to “de-cluttering the historical diets of examinations during upper-secondary years S4-S6 and reflect on when and why Scottish students should take examinations” and “alternative ways to acknowledge the end of compulsory schooling”. The inherent implication is that these issues were not hitherto under consideration. This would be astounding if correct.

Scotland poised to make major changes.

The OECD report was written by Gordon Stobart, a retired Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London who has extensive experience as a teacher and a researcher in education and assessment. Ably assisted by staff at the OECD and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), he has produced an authoritative and informative comparison of examinations in various countries. Although geared to the request from Scotland, it is just as valid for the other jurisdictions across the UK and must be alarming the Department for Education in London.  

The message is clear. There are too many examinations in Scotland starting at age sixteen with National 5 examinations. Then there are Highers at seventeen and Advanced Highers at eighteen for follow.  However, an advantage in Scotland is that the Highers results are used to select candidates for university places a year early (see TEFS 15th January 2021 ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’). Although Advanced Highers a year later are needed for entrance to some universities elsewhere in the UK, they provide a valuable transition year for many students.

The rest of the world has moved on.

The report observes that many countries have dispensed with examinations at sixteen on the grounds that most students stay longer in formal education. This seems to be a sensible since “Internationally, the majority of students now stay on in education or training beyond 16 years of age and upper-secondary school assessments focus on students at 18”.  Stobart concludes that there are “relatively few jurisdictions outside the British tradition with national examinations at the end of compulsory schooling”.  He recommends that Scotland considers “‘de-cluttering’ the historical diets of examinations during upper-secondary years”. A suggestion that ending examinations at age sixteen and replacing them with a “move to a school graduation certificate or diploma” will look attractive to some seeking to further diverge from the rest of the UK. 

The cases for and against.

The case for making such a move in Scotland is strong when considering the latest examination statistics from 2019 (Level 4 and Level 5). The National Qualifications in Scotland are somewhat complex and take a little time to unpick (see SQA Guide) . National 5 examinations are taken at sixteen. But these are geared to those considered of greater attainment, whereas many others are relegated to National 4, assessed as pass or fail by teachers. The analysis reveals that too many are left behind with little information for many leavers beyond a record of failing.

There were 46,544 students entered at National 4 in 2019. However, 43.2% (20,107) only got one pass and 4.9% (2,278) had no pass. Most of those left full-time education and the results “provide minimal information about the students”.

Those at National 5 fared little better where 30% (23, 994) of the 80,046 entered managed only one A-C pass and 15% (12 052) had no pass. When leaving school at this point, 57% went into Further Education and 18% into employment (Scottish Government (2021), Summary statistics for attainment and initial leaver destinations).  But this leaves around five to six thousand cut adrift each year.

The argument against a more general assessment of all students at sixteen is that the current system identifies more rigorously those suitable for advanced education and filters out those achieving lower attainment.  It seems that is the only purpose. A broader assessment of the attainment of students, covering other achievements beyond a few or no passes, would certainly help employers and colleges in supporting them into work at that point.  Highers would still be the pivot point for those thinking about university and little would change other than having more time to prepare.

Meanwhile in the rest of the UK.

The rest of the UK essentially does the same as Scotland at sixteen, but with a single GCSE series of examinations. Yet the same arguments hold since all must stay in education to at least age eighteen. However, the result of the chaos of the pandemic is a growing dissent from many in education towards the government’s determination to return to the same examination system deployed prior to the pandemic. This will turn out to be a major mistake and a lost opportunity.  Despite a return to the old ways being driven by established vested interests, the Times appears to be leading the dissent with its own expert Education Commission launched back in May of this year.  The aim is to report on ‘The Times view on weaknesses in British education’  that will challenge a return to the previous assumptions and ‘status quo’. Although preparing to report later this year, the  direction being taken is already clear with, ‘Education experts: ‘End do-or-die exams for teens’  (15th August 2021). 

It may be no coincidence that the chair of the Commission is Louise Hayward, Professor of Education at the University of Glasgow. She is quoted with, “Do or die exams are stressful, unfair and they don’t measure what is important for young people’s future. We ask youngsters to sit too many exams, and they switch them off learning.”  Another member of the Commission, Alison Peacock, of the Chartered College of Teaching in London, noted that the examination system was “unfair” and “devastating” that a third of 16-year-olds fail Maths and English GCSEs every year. Like those in Scotland, too many are left behind in the attainment race. Indeed, many of these will have abilities that the system fails to recognise.

The solution must include equality and fairness.

The Times Education Commission has given us a glimpse of what they are about to reveal. This will align closely with that direction being taken in Scotland. It seems they simply want to “scrap GCSE exams”. Also, with “A-levels would survive, but grades would be based on a mixture of exams and marks given by teachers for classwork”, they also align with the views of TEFS in ‘2021 Examinations: From gold standard to fool’s gold’ (10th August 2021).

Lets hope that finally the idea of a better more resilient system will prevail soon. However, while the OECD report acknowledges the impact of the pandemic on the “the disparities experienced by students, in terms of the difference in resources available for the socially advantaged and the socially disadvantaged” there is little on this as the main priority for the future.  TEFS argues that fairness and equality must be elevated to top of the priority list, whatever decision on examinations emerges.

Certainly, TEFS would agree that “Examinations are only meritocratic and fair when candidates have the same opportunities to access the curriculum and examination resources”.  Indeed, it may well be that teachers and “local solutions are more dependable” when judging the “relative attainments of students”.  But much more will need to be done to put everyone on the same level pitch.

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