Right result for the right exam system

27th August 2004 at 01:00
The challenges are greater than ever and young people are rising to them, says Douglas Osler

Results matter. The ones posted to Scottish pupils earlier this month are, for them, the most important outcome so far of their time at school. If they want to get a life, they need to get a living and that requires good results. A successful education system is the bedrock of a sound economy and a stable society. Of course, there are later chances to improve on qualifications but the first chance is still the best chance.

This rite of passage for each pupil is also an annual rite of passage for the system in which they are taught. The results are a judgment on individual schools, on the education system and on changes implemented by successive education ministers. When school targets were set, the minister of the time was amazed that schools sharing similar catchment areas could serve pupils so very differently.

Some schools with apparently impressive headline figures are not doing as well as they should by their pupils. That is an unacceptable lottery in our education system. There should be no place to hide from that kind of comparison.

So when youngsters were opening their results, schools would be studying their summaries carefully. Most accept that they should be held to account for their stewardship of our children's chances. Only schools that value children, encourage a high standard of teaching and learning, are well managed and properly resourced can create the atmosphere that brings high performance. That is why the annual levels of achievement are a summary report on the state of the nation's education.

Comment each year centres on which subjects have more and better passes than the year before. I always found it annoying to take media calls looking for confirmation that the results were disappointing or that the examinations were easier. No one who looks at the demand on pupils in numbers of sittings as well as the complexity of the individual subject-matter can doubt that the challenges are greater than ever.

It is right to expect year-on-year improvements. If that doesn't happen, ministers, policy-makers, teachers, pupils and parents have been wasting energy. Results hold up or improve because the quality of learning and teaching and the changes to the curriculum and exams are proving successful.

Particularly unbelievable are reports in a national newspaper which thinks it has a story when all it is advertising is its own inability to understand the exam system. Certainly new exams - or "tests", as the paper called these national awards - take a while to become established in the public mind (it took time for personnel departments to accept Standard grades instead of O grades). But attempts to rubbish this year's results by suggesting the figures have been massaged must be the stupidest story of the year. Thousands of youngsters have gained respectable, demanding qualifications at Intermediate level and that is twisted into a massaging of results. It is a significant achievement for a new exam system designed to encourage learning and bring individuals greater long-term success.

There is, in fact, no evidence of falling standards or falling demands.

This year English results have improved at Higher, whereas last year they had fallen but risen in mathematics. Fluctuation from year to year is a sign that the exam system is alive and reflects the different abilities of pupil cohorts. Again this year, the outcome shows that the Scottish Qualifications Authority is living up to its mandate to protect standards.

Nevertheless, the situation in English must be watched as passes are still down in quality over recent years. The reasons are complex. The exam at the end of S5 follows 12 years of learning. There is a long-standing problem with the teaching of writing in primary schools. HMI has drawn attention over the past 30 years to weaknesses in the content and demand of the first two years of secondary education. In the case of English and mathematics, there should be more detailed monitoring of each pupil's progress and the courses in secondary should be devised as complete five or six-year courses rather than one for the first two years, one to Standard grade and then one to Higher.

The SQA has pointed to the readiness of some schools to present pupils for an exam more or less on request rather than exercising professional judgment about the likelihood of success. One of the main reasons for introducing Higher Still reforms was to allow pupils courses more suited to their readiness. Some schools are still not making enough use of that gentler route between Standard grade and Higher. That is serious because the policy of presenting straight to Higher has caused failure for some youngsters this month.

On the other hand, the thousands who have tasted success at Intermediate may be Higher successes next year. It is time we saw more of the benefits of Higher Still feeding through, although the migration from Standard grade is a sign that schools are wakening up to the opportunities.

It is possible to speculate why some schools have been slow to grasp the advantages of going to Higher by way of Intermediate. There is an argument that presentation should not be an additional hurdle for pupils and this was a reasonable view when there was no Intermediate. That has changed and teachers must be more willing to stand by their professional judgments and divert pupils to more appropriate courses even in the face of parental pressure.

There have been other successes this year. Standard grade results have risen marginally. This exam has been in place for many years now but there is always talk about removing it as it is no longer used as a marketable qualification. To do that when the new Higher and Intermediate courses were being introduced would have been unwise, but the time is now ripe. Apart from anything else, its existence encourages the fragmentation of course structures into two-year parcels which is detrimental to learning and to raising standards. It also makes the system seem over-examined.

It is good, too, to see the increasing numbers of Advanced Higher passes.

CSYS had grown tired from university ambivalence and dated content.

Advanced Higher has none of these problems. Scotland now has modern courses which are as demanding as any advanced qualification elsewhere in the UK.

So, results matter to individuals, to their families, to schools, to governments and to our economy and society. Their importance in education should be constantly emphasised by ministers and the present minister has mounted a staunch defence of this year's results. This year's rite of passage shows again that there is nothing wrong with Scottish education that can't be cured by what is right with it.

Douglas Osler is former head of the inspectorate.

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