Reverting to exams this year is ‘most sensible option’

But ultimately Scotland must move away from ‘three consecutive years of high-stakes exams’, says this school leader

Graeme Wallace

Reverting to exams this year is ‘most sensible option’

“There is no easy answer, but there is a sensible answer,” to misquote former US president Ronald Reagan. And it seems the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Scottish government agree.

Amid the chatter of building back better, lessons learned and new normals, many imagined an exam-free future. Some wondered if young Scots might ever see the inside of an exam hall again. A more progressive approach to certification might still be the silver lining to this pandemic – but not yet.

Background: External exams to go ahead in 2022 – ‘if safe to do so’

SQA: Exam contingency will require no extra assessments

Related: OECD review paves way for qualifications overhaul

Expert view: ‘Caw canny’ when it comes to Scottish qualifications reform

Listen: Reflections on SQA results 2021 and the future of school assessment

And that’s probably the right thing. Life in school over the past week has been characterised by the usual August magic. The excited, expectant faces of first years. Fourth years who have doubled in height. Shiny new shoes and curiously different hairstyles. After six weeks of sunny weather and mask-free faces, pupils and staff look rested and refreshed. There is a real sense of moving on to something better, a gladness to be back and a positive buzz about the future. 

So I welcome yesterday’s announcement on the 2022 exams diet. A year close to normal is probably what we all need. Besides, what else could be done? Nobody would want to replay either of the last two years and any attempt to implement a meaningful alternative by the spring would be rushed. Holding exams this year is the most sensible option.

Mitigations and self-isolation are with us still. Already, some Scottish teachers have had to work at home after being "pinged", albeit for shorter periods. It might have been helpful to schedule the exams for slightly later than the usual May window. Holding them in June would give pupils four additional weeks for learning. But this would bring its own challenges – including around change of timetable and primary transition.   

To do well in National 5 or Higher exams, pupils must show they are able to apply their learning in new contexts; this is exactly what all of us in Scottish education must do this session. 

After their recent experiences, teachers have stronger knowledge than ever of the standards required. Teachers and schools will plan assessments carefully, using them formatively to support learning as well as to inform judgements and reports to parents and carers. 

We have known since before the summer that courses would be modified in roughly the same way as last year. These modifications have been largely helpful in saving time but sometimes bring their own challenges. For instance, removing the assignment from science and social subjects courses also removes an opportunity where many young people can perform well. 

The SQA has promised to publish “modification summary documents” that provide more detail on the 2021-22 modifications and explain the assessment requirements for this year. Teachers will want to see these as soon as possible and the SQA has committed to publishing them by 31 August.

Early advice has also been promised on the contingency plans that will be enacted should public health measures require exams to be cancelled. The chances of this happening are small. But our system leaders must ensure that there is nothing in any of the forthcoming advice documents that could lead to an increase in the assessment burden placed on pupils or staff. 

Schools will be acutely aware of the anxieties and questions that pupils and parents will have and the fact that, for some pupils, the first exam they ever sit will be an Advanced Higher. The profession will show the same exemplary commitment to young people we have seen very publicly over the last two years. We will ensure they are fully supported. 

Ultimately, though, Scotland must move away from a senior phase that consists of three consecutive years of high-stakes exams

Everyone and their granny has tweeted on the “exams versus coursework” debate and much of this has been rooted in ideology, anecdote or false assumptions about what works or what is fair. It is essential that Ken Muir’s review of certification engages the whole country in debate. But let’s make sure that debate is led by robust research and leads to an improved certification experience within the lifetime of this parliament. 

It’s a challenge that will be neither simple nor easy. But Scottish education has learned a lot about how to tackle a challenge. 

Graeme Wallace is a depute headteacher in a Scottish school. He tweets @graemepwallace

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