'Prelims aren't perfect – but as good as it gets'

The SQA says schools don’t need to run National 5 prelims – but they're the fairest form of assessment, argues this head

David Dempster

Coronavirus and SQA exams: Prelims are not perfect, but they’re as good as it gets, says this headteacher

Prelims and national qualification exams are almost a rite of passage for young people in Scotland who are going through the senior phase of high school.

When it was announced back in early October that the National 5 exam diet in 2021 was being removed, there was a palpable outpouring of disappointment and frustration from our students in S4 – well, from most of them... And the current S5 and S6 students are hoping against hope that their diet of Higher and Advanced Higher exams won’t succumb to the same fate. Watch this space.

You see, despite popular belief, when it comes to having their achievements recognised, our young people are not lazy. They are not looking for a shortcut or an easy way to have their learning and abilities assigned a level of success.


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Rather, young people want to do it for themselves. They want to do it the old-fashioned, tried-and-tested way that will allow them to pit themselves against their peers as well as all those who were tested in the same way in the years before them. The vast majority want to sit final national qualification exams.

SQA results: Young people don't want a shortcut

It certainly won’t be a shortcut or an easy option for the teachers who will have the job of assigning these grades in the absence of national exam diets. And, of course, it is they who will then have the job of defending the grades they award against unhappy students and parents, some of whom will be convinced that there would have been a better outcome for them if the exam had been sat.

So, all the more need, in this critical climate, for schools to have a robust diet of prelims. They provide an experience that largely replicates the experience of the final exam. Students want this, and teachers need it.

There is, of course, a variety of other innovative ways across subjects to determine levels of attainment and there may well be some additional resources forthcoming from the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) to assist with this. That will be welcomed by many and will increase options in this tricky business.

But everyone understands what a prelim is and how it works. Prelims provide robust and reliable assessment in the same way as the final exams, which, in the case of National 5, will be in absentia.

People believe in prelims and are accepting of their outcome, whether good or bad, and from that outcome, plans are put in place to address what needs to be worked on before the finals. Or now, in this new world, before the final teacher judgements are made.

Teachers and students need to have confidence that the methods of assessment are fair to all and a well-timetabled diet of prelims where all students in a subject sit the assessment on the same day at the same time is the fairest way to do this.

Of course, current Covid restrictions add a layer of complication in delivering prelims, but that shouldn’t put schools off.

We are currently in the middle of our S4 prelim diet with all S4 pupils within a subject sitting the exam at the same time but in their own class groups, with the exam being sat in classroom, the invigilation being carried out by a classroom teacher, and the exam being shortened to fit within a double period to minimise staff cover.

Compared with the traditional exam-hall model, this has demanded even more organisation and messaging to make it all work. But it has – very well indeed. This is testament to the value that our students and teachers have put on these exams and their determination to make the prelim diet work in these most difficult of circumstances.

We will, of course, have to have additional assessments nearer the time when final teacher judgements are to be made, and it may well be that we have another similar second prelim to provide this additional information.

The S5-6 prelims scheduled early next year will present a similar but bigger set of issues and it may be that we do have to schedule them differently. However, we will do them somehow – in a Covid-secure way.

There is a genuine appetite for these prelims to take place. And there is good reason for it. There can be considerable variation in the quality and robustness of student assessment tools in and across schools. Our students, teachers and parents know this. 

The exam diet has stood the test of time. Although maybe not perfect, a robust, well-managed diet of prelims to aid teachers’ overall assessment of our young people’s abilities is seen by many to be as good as it gets.

David Dempster is the headteacher of Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh

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