When it comes to exams, we fail to see the big picture

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Commercial pressures and an unhealthy focus on attainment figures should tick us all off

Recent allegations of examiners divulging exam contents to teachers south of the border have revealed a particularly bizarre element of a system driven by competition for the exams business.

In Scotland, we are free of such commercial pressures, so you would expect our system to remain untainted. But it may also contain features to serve our unhealthy focus on attainment levels.

The "crisis" in the south reminded me of an incident, during my tenure as education minister, which made me question further our preoccupation with exams. One August, I was advised the pass rates in Higher English had fallen by some 3 per cent, and I knew I was in for a pasting.

I started to probe the reasons for the fall. It was improbable that this particular cohort of pupils was less intelligent than the previous year's, particularly if the same pupils were performing as well as previous cohorts in other subjects. Given the pupils would have been taught largely by the same teachers as the previous year, a sudden collapse in teaching standards was improbable. The explanation was, of course, that there were changes to the exam itself.

Fear not, I was advised by the SQA - an organisation I generally admire - it was down to the new exam where teachers had evidently not grasped the impact of the re-structuring and what was being sought by examiners. The SQA would sort that, using mechanisms to give schools effective feedback. They would also engage closely with the profession through a series of events to ensure a better understanding in future. Within a couple of years or so the pass rate was back up.

Even without the element of competition that may have driven the alleged behaviours in the south, there is probably at root a feature of all modern exam systems which is simply designed to get pass rates up. This is driven by mistaken assumptions that high pass rates equate to sound education, and it is aided by the media which demand ever-rising standards, or someone to blame, and a political confusion over pass rates, accountability and agendas around choice.

The various pressures lead to increased coaching in modern education systems to get more pupils over closely defined hurdles, and a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on clearing the hurdles - little to do with real learning. They focus on teaching what we are about to examine, not examining what we have just taught.

The controversy down south may have been pushed further by commercial competition, but it is not far removed from the processes in many countries. If I am close to the truth, it is an international feature of modern schooling that is unhealthy and has little to do with better education.

Peter Peacock was Scottish minister for education and young people, 2003-06.

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