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Children do exams and assessments ‘more convoluted’ than at university

The system of assessment in Scotland is not fair, says headteacher Rod Grant

Children do exams and assessments ‘more convoluted’ than at university

I don’t think there is any doubt that our education system is quite stressed currently. This is largely to do with workload and the undeniable increase in paperwork brought about by a plethora of accountability measures. Accountability which is evidenced by planning, results, assessment. Accountability which means that teachers are now judged on specific, measurable outcomes regardless of the children who sit in front of them.

If you think teachers have it easy, just place yourself for a moment in front of 30-odd teenagers requiring your sole input for over an hour. Easy? No, of course it’s not. However, we have the most highly-qualified teaching staff in our history who are passionate about teaching and learning and yet drowning in wildly unrealistic expectations.

There are plenty of targets that get blamed, including government (of course), Education Scotland and also the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) – the latter being the sole arbiters of a student’s educational attainment.


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Is the SQA getting it right? Is it providing a system of assessment that is fair? Is it providing assessment papers that are reflective of the subject being studied? Is it allowing students to garner knowledge in an accessible and creative manner?

The straightforward answer to all of these questions, I believe, is no.

We have pupils undertaking two-and-a-half-hour written examinations in PE. So, if we have a future Andy Murray or Finn Russell in our midst, we’d better hope they can structure an essay. And this PE paper is the longest paper of any Higher subject, but I’m sure you would expect that…

We have a beautifully practical subject like media studies, which now requires some 5,000-7,000 words in the Higher Assignment based on recently published SQA exemplars. In history, if students don’t use the correct phrases they are downgraded. As a result, those students who learn the requisite tropes and techniques can achieve a better grade than students who have greater subject knowledge.

Meanwhile, mathematics and statistics are the only subjects that don’t assess any coursework – all assessment is exam-based only. Why are these subjects different?

We now have written exam papers for subjects like dance, practical woodworking and practical electronics. (I thought the word "practical" might actually mean something.)

And the biggest nonsense of all – extra time allowances. I’m not against extra time per se for those who need it, but if you were taking an Advanced Higher exam in history, for example, the three-hour paper could be extended to six hours.

This all seems very strange when you compare it to my own recent experiences, undertaking several master’s-level postgraduate courses – none of which even required me to sit an exam.

So, in essence, we have 15-year-old children in Scotland sitting exams and writing assignments which are longer and more convoluted than those that they will ever have to complete at university. This is a system which borders on child cruelty for no obvious reason – at least, not to me.

Rod Grant is headmaster at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh. This is a version of an article originally published on the school website

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