A grumpy guide to learning: don't turn a failure into a pass and think it is clever

1st April 2011 at 01:00
The SQA's most recent gobbet of wisdom regarding A-C passes needs much revision

I'm trying (despite impending retiral) to avoid the Grumpy Old Men Club. I've never voted Tory and hope to maintain that record. I don't believe in a golden age of education or that everything in schools has gone downhill since the 1960s. Indeed, on balance, things have improved substantially. Although I'm committed to the admittedly unfashionable idea that education is about things of the intellect, I've been very sceptical about the dumbing-down view of recent educational developments. The SQA's most recent gobbet of wisdom has, however, made me rethink that at least.

On 28 February, the SQA issued a circular headed National Courses - Grade D. The import of it was that for Int 1s and 2s, Highers and Advanced Highers, a Grade D will now carry the same number of SCQF points as Grades A-C as of 2011, and this will be backdated to 2004.

By a wave of the magic wand, that which has always been deemed a fail will now become a pass, and historic fails for the previous six years will also be transformed into passes. School statistics (STACS) will be re- calculated to reflect this change.

In schools we have been telling students, with good reason, that a pass in these exams is an award at A-C. Passes at A-C are what universities and employers recognise as passes. Oh, I know that the terms "pass" and "fail" are not used by the SQA, now operating with a Polyanna-inspired ethos, but they make perfect sense in the real world. The entire exam system, with all its flaws, has been predicated on the assumption that an award at C marked a basic mastery of the subject concerned at the level concerned, and that an award at D indicated an insufficient mastery of the subject. When we remove that arbitrary and sometimes harsh differentiation, we also remove any onus on our young people to seek to attain that mastery.

The justification for this is that the SCQF points levels were anomalous. For example, a student successfully completing an Access 3 (which in several subjects is the Int 1 course without the exam) would earn his or her presenting centre more STACS credit than a student attaining a D at Int 1. The answer surely is to decrease the credit for the Access 3 award.

There are three fundamental issues. First, this is dumbing down. The philistines have not triumphed but they have secured a small but significant triumph. Second, when such decisions can be backdated, when statistics on which major judgments of schools have rested can be so cavalierly amended, what is under attack are not merely the statistical concepts of validity and reliability, but the concept that words, words such as "pass" and "fail", have meanings. Third, this patronises our young people who sit these exams. This foolish move should be rescinded immediately.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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