There are lots of great things about Scottish education – staff, pupils, relationships, aspirations, attempts to close attainment gaps (before politicians jumped on the term). But we need to take a good look at what is happening around us.
Before undertaking to write this, I asked for anonymity. This serves three purposes. First of all, I will still be able to teach. Secondly, a cross-regional group of staff were prepared to talk to me safely. Finally, read this and assume it is being written from your own area – it almost certainly could be written from any one of Scotland's 32 local authorities.
Over-lenient and often downright fraudulent passes at National 4 (which is broadly equivalent to a lower-level GCSE and has no external assessment) have been handed out like sweeties. I know that you, like me, are disgusted to hear that. But what can we do? What with it being shocking, not to mention an act of gross professional misconduct, I bet that you, like me, have refused to pass a child on the grounds that they had actually failed.
That is, until you hear nothing of it again, then suddenly the child passes. Was it the deputy head who “coached” the pupil through it? Was it the head? Or was it the young, impressionable and career-hungry whippersnapper down the corridor, of whom the year head popped in to ask a favour?
I snapped and hit one of the repeat offenders in my school with a verbal tirade last year. I accused my colleague of sackable offences. They challenged me to ask myself one real and deep question: “What would happen if (insert child’s name) didn’t get their National 4 passes?”
I refused to bite. “A fail is a fail!” Rancour was flying in both directions, as we both held our principles high.
“We fail that child and they don’t get into college – we ruin their life. You would have destroyed any chance of a future!”
That’s what I was told. I think some call this “bridging the gap”. I call it disgusting.
Quick read: Is National 4 credible?
Falling interest? What the stats say about National 4 uptake
Malpractice: More teachers and pupils caught cheating
It is true that colleges are asking for at least three National 4 qualifications: English, maths and one other closely related to the subject at hand must be obtained. On challenging this requirement with one college I spoke with, I was informed that, under the old qualifications system in Scotland, they always asked for at least three general Standard Grades. I reminded the chap at the college of the reality that the overall pass in Standard Grade was more forgiving. National 4 is a different ball game, and this seems to be one reason some staff are happy to fudge results.
Of course, if a school is assessed on its National 4 results, or on college progression, why would they not hand out free National 4 passes? What about the verification process, designed to to allow SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) to check from the outside that schools pass muster when handling qualifications such as National 4? One response seems to be: “Don’t panic about verification – heck, we get to choose our own pupils, so we just don’t send one of the artificial passes back to be verified anyway.”
Have we, then, become a country full of artificially bloated National 4 passes?
The worst thing here is that we can’t even have a discussion about it because commenting on such experiences will likely lead to some form of employment disciplinary action. Maybe, if you experience something like this, you could write to your MSP. Maybe, if every single MSP gets a letter saying the same thing from a vast array of secondary school teachers, they could take on our battle.
For now, I have one wish, having been in the midst of this whole sorry mess: may external assessment return ASAP.
The writer is a secondary teacher in Scotland