Divorced from the real life of the child

In the week that Scotland's exam results are issued, Ewan Aitken argues that the assessment regime has failed

LAST year I married 26 women. Well, not quite. Last year I married 26 women to someone else. I like weddings, except the photographs. I can keep control of the service, but then the flashgun rules. Eventually, jaws sore from hours of inane smiling, we are suddenly released to the bar, free at last.

Those photos captured the day's mood brilliantly. We saw people being themselves; laughing, deep in thought, talking, listening, debating, dancing. They recorded the event with insight, accuracy and, for some, a little embarrassment. The formal photos simply told us who was there, and perhaps their taste in wedding attire.

I have nothing against wedding photographers, but what they produce does not tell the story of the wedding, only something about the eye, and the assumptions, of the photographer. The happy couple, friends and family are bit players.

This story of wedding photography is a parable for where we have come to with the assessment and examination system. Instead of allowing us to record the skills, talents and achievements of young people, examinations and attainment levels now define both what young people do within the education system and how we assess whether they individually, and the schools they attend, have succeeded or failed. They no longer record, they define. They have failed to do their job.

Teachers constantly talk of being torn between trying to meet the needs of the young people and the demands to deliver the curriculum so exams can be passed. And that's the problem.

It's not that having a curriculum is restrictive. A well-researched curriculum delivered by professional teachers will nurture the potential of young people while allowing direction to be given by school and society. But it cannot do so when the success or failure of the delivery of that curriculum is defined by something that should be simply a tool to assess progress.

Instead of being part of a process, examinations and attainment levels have become the benchmark of accountability.

I want accountability for education and its politicians. I want to enable parents to make informed assessments about schools. I want young people to know how they are doing and what still they need to do to develop as fully as possible as young adults. Exams and attainment levels as they are now used do not give us any of these things.

We need new ways of recording what is happening in the education experience that do not define the experience. And that is difficult because the demand from parents, press, politicians and, to some extent, pupils themselves is for quantitative rather than qualitative benchmarks.

One alternative can be seen in the work of Christine Harrison, of King's College, London. She argues that grading classwork simply sets a competitive tension in the classroom and means other feedback goes unheard. Giving directional responses and allowing young people to improve their work both engages young people and gives parents guidance. "Could try harder" sounds pejorative and doesn't tell the pupil or the parent how to try harder. Saying "this work could be developed by reading this resource etc" is personal, directional and informs pupil and parent. Harrison's research didn't remove exams but curriculum delivery became more important than exams. Results improved but success and acknowledgement of areas needing more work was not defined by exams.

Edinburgh's Royston primary's award-winning Roytracker software programme enables pupils to know where they are on their attainment journey without being judged against their peers. It gives them control over progress and rewards effort at the child's pace not against the pace of the class. It is a personal learning plan (PLP) by another name.

This is where I believe we need to go. PLPs that tell young people's story in comparison, but not in competition, with their peers. Plans benchmarked by a variety of methods, not simply exams or levels attained. Plans that parents can access at any time and use for discussions with teachers - not as a weapon in conflict but a starting point for debate. Plans that record the story without defining the process of the story's telling.

The Rev Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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