Exam reform is rearranging the deckchairs

23rd January 2009 at 00:00

The introduction of A Curriculum for Excellence gives us the chance to overhaul not only the way we teach but, more importantly, the way students learn. But if we are to have a 21st-century curriculum, the 19th-century examination system we still have in place won't do, and the Government's plans for reform are just rearranging the deckchairs.

It's time for a more radical approach and, in a challenging financial climate, every pound spent has to give best value. Everything is up for discussion, and this must include the costs and usefulness of the "big three" of Learning and Teaching Scotland, HMIE and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Could the money these behemoths cost be better used at a more local level?

I visited Finland last year, primarily to look at the use of technology in the classroom, but had a chance to find out how the Finns assess their students. This led me to question the need for a national qualifications body like the SQA and its huge cost to the taxpayer.

The Finns don't have such an organisation. All assessment is done in school and, at the end of their time in compulsory education, pupils gain a school certificate. This then leads to three choices: entry to upper secondary to study for the university matriculation examination, or a place at college on a trade or vocational course, or a modern craft apprenticeship in a work setting. All are assessed "in house" with no national exam board in sight, apart from the matriculation board run by the universities themselves.

Formative assessment is the dominant modus operandi and, as a result, you get excellent teaching and learning which is not focused on a set of examination arrangement documents and associated learning objectives. In other words, they don't spend important years teaching to the tests and exams. This allows more detailed exploration of subject areas, much more cross-curricular and project work and, above all, a level of creativity which we can only dream about here.

Real deep learning results, rather than that which is shallow and soon forgotten after the examination hall has been left behind. Valuable core skills of information retrieval, collaborative working, critical analysis and evaluation of information flourish. After all, in this digital age, nothing we need to know is more than a few mouse clicks away, and the important skills are now the ability to be able to search for and evaluate information and decide how much of it is relevant and useful to the task in hand - rather than the ability to memorise facts for exams.

A real "curriculum for excellence" needs to build on these new requirements, but we will never achieve this if we don't address the examination regime which dominates our classroom practice. That's why I think the SQA needs to go. It's not needed: it's an anachronism which is fundamentally at odds with education in the information age.

The Finns don't have one and they are consistently at the top of international education rankings - perhaps because they trust their teachers to assess. They trust their judgment. We need to do the same. Think of the money that could be saved by this abolition, money that could go straight back into Scottish classrooms, ending the expensive annual cycle of setting, marking and appeals, not to mention its administration.

So let's be brave and take a leap of faith - faith in the professionalism of our teachers.

Jaye Richards teaches at Cathkin High, Cambuslang.

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