As a teenager around 21 years ago, I returned to school after the October break, whereupon several of my subject teachers explained that some of what had been covered in the previous term needed to be ditched. How could my teachers, some with decades of experience, have got the course so utterly wrong having already covered 10 weeks of it? The simple answer is that this was the inaugural year of the Scottish Qualifications Authority's new Higher Still course.
It transpired that the SQA had failed to give due notice to teachers of what was actually going to be assessed and, as a result, had left staff guessing about what may feature in the final exam. When the documentation did finally arrive, my teachers wanted to be safe and assessed every idea, topic and unit, along with a prelim – sound familiar? The process was exhausting and the sprint to try and catch up on missed work did not help. What started out as a few class tests here and there became an avalanche of assessments that had to be passed in order to qualify sitting the final exam. However, compared with what happened during the exams and the results, this was a minor blip.
On results day, schools usually roll out ecstatic straight-A pupils for the BBC to film, but the fanfare for the millennial results’ day was cut short. As the morning progressed, it was clear something was amiss. For instance, my certificate proclaimed that I had an A at Higher French – which was a complete surprise, especially as I had not taken French at Higher.
Priestley review of 2020 SQA results fiasco: 17 key findings
Looking back 20 years: Recalling a previous SQA debacle
Back in 2000, 4,000 certificates ended up being wrong, tens of thousands of results were late and the SQA spent a reported £11 million sorting out a fiasco that would drag on until January 2002, when, a year and a half later than expected, all students had finally been notified of their final results.
Coronavirus: Stopping students from being overwhelmed by assessments
Now I am the teacher awaiting confirmation of what the final course assessments will entail, and my biggest concern this academic year is for the wellbeing of students – who will, no doubt, be assessed on every aspect of the course out of an understandable fear of teachers using a holistic judgement. As someone who has been through this ghastly experience, I assure you that constantly revising and sitting assessments is not a fun learning journey. It is more like crawling across a fire pit.
The SQA has already stated that between only two and four assessments will be needed for the National 5 course. It is not expecting evidence for every facet and aspect of the course, as this would be unreasonable. Yet chatter on online forums suggests second and even third prelims being set to certify final and estimate grades. Unchecked, teachers may completely overload youngsters who are already struggling to cope with a global pandemic that has turned dreams of university into a choice of which gulag-style halls of residence they will have the pleasure of paying for.
Instead, we must consider how we can manage the stress of our students through a fair and reasonable amount of assessment. We must consider our own wellbeing and health, so that we are not overloaded with marking.
And, finally, we must consider the rock and a hard place that the SQA finds itself in: it did not create the global pandemic. It would be all too easy to blame the SQA for the need for rigorous and robust assessments – but teachers will be the ones to set additional and potentially unnecessary assessments.
Marcus Patton is a secondary teacher in Scotland