The last thing students need is more exams

10th June 2016 at 00:00
Reform Scotland claims that there is a ‘lottery’ in the number of National qualifications young people can take, but the real problem is overassessment

The Reform Scotland thinktank is an interesting organisation. Its website commitment to “limited government and diversity”, and its 2016 manifesto call for “greater autonomy” for schools, are often interpreted as support for opting out of local authority control, and perhaps for something along the lines of the English academy system.

Its commitment to free-market thinking, and the Conservative Party background of its two staff members, add to this impression. Its major report on Scottish schools in 2013 did not call for opting out per se, but the title, By Diverse Means, again stressed its antipathy towards, or at least lack of enthusiasm for, the current local authority model in Scotland’s state education sector (

The report ran to more than 120 pages, and contained 37 recommendations, but made no mention of any reform of independent schools, which perhaps indicates that the private sector is viewed by Reform Scotland as unproblematic.

It was puzzling, therefore, to find that the evident diversity in timetabling policy in the upper stages of Scottish schools should have attracted Reform Scotland’s vocal opposition (“Do pupils face a postcode lottery on exams?”, TESS, 27 May).

The 2013 report states: “The commission sees the promotion of increased variety in the system as a crucially important prerequisite of future improvement.” Thus it was surprising to see Reform Scotland take such offence at this very phenomenon. It gives credence to those who see the organisation’s calls for “diversity” as being about governance arrangements rather than raising substantive educational concerns.

‘Inequality of opportunity’

Nevertheless, Reform Scotland’s recent report on policy for National 4 and 5 qualifications in Scottish schools does merit attention ( Its headline summary is that the current situation, where there is much varied practice, represents significant inequality of opportunity. The report shows that pupils across Scotland, depending on council area and individual school policies, are allowed to study between a maximum of five and eight subjects in S4 and S5. Superficially, this is certainly “diverse”, but Reform Scotland reports this as representing a “lottery” and built-in “disadvantage” for some pupils.

Where the data and analysis can be seen to be questionable is that they are partial and incomplete. The report acknowledges that the authors have compared only the maximum number of subjects allowed in S4 and S5. Actual practice is missing. We do not know what young people are really doing. The report also makes no reference to exit qualifications: if someone were to sit eight N5 exams and then follow that up with no Highers, they would have no advantage in numerical qualifications over someone who sat five N5 exams, but followed that up with five Highers. The data cannot tell us anything about this longitudinal picture.

Finally, the report reveals nothing about the quality of the qualifications gained: are five A passes at N5 to be viewed as representing disadvantage when compared to someone with eight Cs, or even eight “fails” at N5? What the report does do is show that parts of Scotland may be offering a broader curriculum than others in S4 and S5. While this appears to be factually correct, it does not seem sufficient evidence for the broadside about “inequality” and “disadvantage” in the press release and subsequent media coverage.

Examination overload

Where some reform may well be needed is in the scale of examination overload in upper secondary. When Standard grade was abolished, one of the key arguments was that it was no longer the exit qualification for most young people.

The anticipation was that we would move towards something more akin to the Finnish model, where the only examinations are taken at the end point of a student’s secondary school experience.

The system that has instead emerged means, for some pupils, years of high-stakes assessment and examination for N4 through N5 and then Higher qualifications. That was never the intention and yet it is commonplace for young people to sit N5 exams in a subject one year followed by Higher the next year and Advanced Higher in S6.

The hope – a false one, it transpires – was that a single exam would be the norm. Where one school attempted to implement this pattern, the result was a media storm and protest from pupils and parents. We are now in a situation where most young people face successive years of “two-term dashes”, heavily peppered with internal assessments, reassessments and prelims. It is not clear how we can escape this trap. Fear of failure has led to schools donning assessment belt and braces and doubling up at N4 and N5, and/or N5 and Higher.

Certainly a stronger and more flexible safety net within the exam system would assist: sitting a Higher knowing that those not making the grade could still be rewarded with an N5 pass would allow some relief. This would require alignment of each subject’s curriculum between the various levels – and that is certainly not a uniform picture currently.

Reform Scotland has unearthed some interesting comparative data in its report. Unfortunately, it does not tell us much, and certainly not enough for blanket media coverage and loud claims about inequality and disadvantage. These are blights in the system – but not so evidently in the timetabling arrangements of Scotland’s upper secondary schools.

Professor Donald Gillies is dean of the School of Education at the University of the West of Scotland

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today