Appeal to common sense

30th January 2015 at 00:00

The new exam appeals system is a radical and retrograde step for Scottish education, despite protestations that there has been barely any change.

The previous system allowed teachers to submit evidence to the Scottish Qualifications Authority to demonstrate that a student's exam result was not a fair reflection of their overall performance and ability. That facility has now disappeared.

In its place are charges of up to pound;39.75 and the prospect of a reduced score for unsuccessful appeals, designed to discourage students and schools from challenging grades. The most damaging aspect of the new approach is the lack of an evidence-based system for anything other than consideration of "exceptional circumstances", meaning that years of excellent work can be undone by poor performance on a single day.

Yes, a system of re-marking rather than appeals will reduce the number of speculative submissions, but the obvious price is a relentless focus on the primacy of the final exam. And that is unequivocally not a good thing for young people in Scotland or our country as a whole.

A greater emphasis on examination will simply magnify Scotland's inequality problem by reinforcing a system that gives enormous advantages to well-off families. Schools in the most affluent areas tend to have fewer social and behavioural problems, so are often better able to focus on preparation for exams. Families with healthy finances can hire private tutors, leaving those who can't afford the pound;25-an-hour rates - which, for five Highers, could add up to more than pound;2,500 over an academic year - instantly disadvantaged.

The time has come for us to face up to what so many have known for so long: the existing assessment system is simply not fit for purpose in the 21st century. The end-of-year exam as we know it is a relic from a world that no longer exists, and we do our young people a terrible disservice every time we refuse to acknowledge and address this fact.

The need for a new approach, which assesses a student's true ability while reflecting the reality of the modern world, seems self-evident, but it is also clear that a certification system that entrenches income-based educational inequality is unacceptable. A remediation system that exacerbates this problem is not the answer.

What we need is the courage to challenge the status quo. We need a system where the talent, work ethic and potential of an individual are genuinely represented. We need to measure the true ability of our young people, not the ability of their teachers and tutors to coach them to answer predictable exam questions.

Above all, we need to eradicate the shameful link between a student's results and their parents' bank balance.

James McEnaney is an English lecturer in further education and a former schoolteacher

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