One exam at 18 now let's move on

Ian Smith

A debate bubbled up again on these pages towards the end of last session about the future of examinations in general and Standard grade in particular.

I suggest that the new education secretary, Fiona Hyslop, lay down an important principle to allow this debate to move on. That principle is: one externally assessed examination at the age of 18 is enough.

It would be good to have such a principle, not least because practice is all over the place. Some have given up on Standard grade and replaced it with other exams. Some have pupils sit it in S3.

Two questions arise from the principle I propose. Enough for whom? And what do we mean by enough? I'll focus mainly on the first.

I read somewhere recently that the three most influential stakeholders in schools are universities, employers and parents, in that order. Certainly, the universities have a great stake in the exams: exams do the job of sorting people out for them. Surely one examination at the age of 18 would suit them? Are they the slightest bit interested in how pupils perform in S3?

The same goes for employers. And fewer young people are going straight from school to employment anyway.

What about parents? They are hooked on exams, especially influential parents in the leafy suburbs; they want them earlier. But all parents want more than that. Research by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools shows that, even among parents who are prepared to pay twice for their children's schooling, examination results come sixth in their list of priorities.

Are national examinations taken for secondary teachers? They are, in the sense that they know that is how they and schools are judged first and foremost. But many would like to be judged using wider criteria. They believe the system narrows the curriculum, makes it difficult for them to help pupils to think and understand and narrows the exploration areas pupils are interested in.

Visits to secondary schools to gather examples of Assessment is for Learning in practice show varying reactions to this initiative. Some say they do not have time to practise the AifL techniques because of the demands of exams. Others use these techniques to coach pupils to answer questions and get good results. They turn out pupils who are successful, confident, engaged and motivated, but they would like more flexibility than the system offers.

Much more worrying are the people who do not seem to think that pupils can be motivated unless they are studying for national exams. If we had only one at the end of secondary, how would we motivate them? Much better to bring Standard grade forward so we have something to work towards from day one in secondary school.

What do the real stakeholders in schools think? Two pupils recently talked about learning becoming more teacher-driven from S1-6 (The TESS, June 22). As teachers focus on results, the classroom atmosphere changes. One believed exams were crucial, but tinkering with Standard grade was no good, we need "something radical".

I agree. Scotland led the way on smoking. We can do the same on exams. The Scottish Qualifications Authority could be required to stamp papers saying "Not to be sold to anyone below the age of 18".

The education secretary is hardly going to take this seriously, is she? She might not even deign to ask what would be put in the place of exams before 18. If she did, the answer would be easy. It is the Assessment is for Learning initiative, and it is increasingly admired throughout the world.

Ian Smith

is founder of Learning Unlimited

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