The admirable intention of successive Scottish governments to close Scotland’s embarrassingly-wide education attainment gap is being thwarted by their own reforms. Changes made to the curriculum and assessment structure of Scottish courses are working against the many pupils who are underperforming because of poverty and other disadvantages.
Take the recent overhaul of the exam system and the introduction, in most subjects, of assignments and other forms of coursework. It’s a move that benefits pupils from more educated and affluent backgrounds who receive useful external help and support with projects which may account for a quarter, a third or even half of the final exam mark. As well as help at home, a growing number of families are paying for tutors to help specifically with coursework and give them an edge in the competition for top grades.
Pupils attending independent schools, with superior resources and pupil-to-teacher ratios, are able to offer the sort of assignments which earn higher marks than those undertaken in many local authority schools. Money can also purchase model essays and support sheets from numerous internet sources to help with, for example, the writing folios which account for 30 per cent of English exam courses.
I know from first-hand experience that teachers serving pupils in disadvantaged areas have a considerably more difficult task in assisting pupils to produce and submit competent coursework. With limited external support, and numerous distractions from study, disadvantaged pupils often underperform in the coursework component of their exams. The introduction of so much coursework has undoubtedly made the education playing field less level than what it was before.
Another area of change which has disadvantaged poorer pupils is the broad general education (BGE) secondary school pupils receive before starting their exam courses.
Previously, the BGE lasted two years and most teachers thought reform would see it reduced to one year to give pupils more time for their exam courses. Instead, the BGE was increased to three years, leaving disadvantaged pupils who have traditionally performed poorly in exams with less than a year to prepare for their National 5 exams. Reform, once again, worked against those very pupils the exam system should be doing more to help.
All sorts of claims were made for Curriculum for Excellence which has provoked far more negative opinions than positive ones. A lack of rigour, particularly in literacy and numeracy, has been to the disadvantage of those from less affluent backgrounds.
Education reform also swept away popular principal-teacher subject posts in our schools and replaced them with a much smaller number of faculty head posts. As well as removing a crucial rung in the promotion ladder, and a proven means of motivating teachers, the reform left many subjects without a specialist to champion subject improvement and development. Too many subjects are disappearing from school curricula and others are left with barely enough timetable space to offer effective courses. Subjects and courses which are particularly suitable for less academic pupils have generally suffered most.
One of the most disheartening experiences for teachers in schools in disadvantaged areas is to watch pupils achieve places at university, but then hear that they have dropped out because of the difficulties they encountered in adjusting to the study regime. Advanced Higher courses were intended to help prepare pupils for university study but, with funding cutbacks, most schools serving poorer areas don’t offer a sufficient number of suitable Advanced Higher courses.
Numerous, seemingly minor changes have also had a detrimental impact on the push against inequality. Appeals for Higher exam grades now cost money, with the result that far fewer appeals are being made. More affluent families now submit more than their proportionate share of appeals.
And then we have the multitude of reforms which were introduced, at considerable expense, but then subsequently scrapped when their more-than-obvious flaws became too apparent to ignore any further. Chartered teacher posts were introduced with hyperbolic claims about how they were going to set a wonderful example for other countries to follow. But they were ditched when headteachers pointed out their flaws.
Unit assessments, now finally just about behind us, were the biggest waste of time, effort and funds. I remember their introduction. In my own subject, geography, we had to test and record nine units for each pupil undertaking the two-term Higher course. The number was eventually reduced to five and then three before compulsory unit-assessments were finally scrapped altogether.
The problem with flawed reform is not just the waste of valuable financial resources but the negative impact on time, stress-levels and morale. Overworked and disillusioned teachers have left the profession while Scottish teenagers, who struggle to meet so many coursework deadlines, are among the world’s most stressed according to a report from the World Health Organisation.
Flawed education reforms have squandered crucial funds which would have been much better invested in supporting initiatives which would have reduced inequalities including improved pupil-teacher ratios, offering rewards for effective teaching and boosting teacher salaries in order to attract and retain more of our finest graduates.
There are so many other changes which could have been made to support the government’s equality strategy but were ignored. Introducing a multiple-choice component in all our final exams would not only save money, and improve the overall reliability of marking (machines mark the papers), but they have also been shown to be considerably fairer to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who are smart-thinking but have inferior reading skills.
It is important to examine our past record of education change in order to prevent similar mistakes being made in the future. Equal opportunities is a fine goal – but it has to be supported by appropriate reforms and not the poorly thought-out, contradictory and damaging changes which have been served up for so long.
John Greenlees is a secondary teacher in Scotland