Coronavirus: 'Use school closures to reset exam system'

The cancellation of exams because of coronavirus presents us with an opportunity to have rethink, says Alan Gillespie

Alan Gillespie

Coronavirus: Use school closures to reset our exams system, writes Alan Gillespie

I’m afraid to admit that I was one of those students. A homework-losing, lecture-skipping nuisance. At school, I coasted through senior courses and put in a week of revision before the big exam.

I remember at university, sitting with my friend Matt, on the morning of an exam I hadn’t studied for. This exam doesn’t know what it’s in for, we told ourselves. This exam has never met people like us. As though the exam was an opponent to be outwitted.

I see how infuriating this behaviour was. But if I could get away with it, what’s stopping today’s and tomorrow’s students from doing the same?


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I had learned how to pass exams but I was barely scratching the surface of the course content. Fast-forward to 2020, and we are living in a world with no Olympic Games, no Premier League football, and – gasp – no SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) exams, for the first time in modern history.

Will coronavirus change our exam system for ever?

Is this something to mourn? As an English teacher, I could lament the thousands of critical essays on Gatsby that will be lost forever. I could shake my head at the absence of those aching, twisted hands you see after a three-hour exam. What about those hours spent explaining how to analyse a metaphor? The lessons on linking sentences? Don’t tell me those didn’t mean anything…

But these, obviously, suddenly appear fantastically insignificant. The world is frying a bigger fish and we need to prioritise looking after our health and our wellbeing rather than revision and recall.

Could this enforced pause actually lead to beneficial, impactful changes at SQA towers? If we can satisfactorily award certificates to students this year, under extreme duress, imagine what we could do with a bit of strategic planning. Why are students writing essays on a book, without being able to look at the book? Why are we basing the success of a nine-month course on a one-off performance in a 90-minute paper?

This is not only a time for potential ideological developments. The SQA’s current delivery system is bizarrely antiquated. Students handwrite exams, which are collected, scanned, uploaded and marked by teachers on laptops. And then – I presume – incinerated? It’s such a convoluted method. What is the SQA’s environmental footprint in all of this? How many tons of paper and plastic and petrol are sacrificed to this particular golden goose every year?

We strive for a modern curriculum, with versatile teachers and technologically literate pupils. This hiatus we find ourselves in could be the best chance we get to reinvent the hamster wheel. Opening an online submission portal should be the SQA’s first port of call. Paper delivery could still be available by request but should not be our default position.

Let’s give more weight and priority to coursework, to teacher judgement, to consistency of achievement. Maybe a grade point average scheme would motivate those students who leave everything until the last minute. Let us teach the course, not the exam. Open-book assessments, with less stringent time pressures, would result in better work, more creative teaching, happier children – and a lot less environmental waste.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow

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