Let’s pause and put exams in perspective

9th January 2015 at 00:00

Education, education, education. Everyone’s banging on about it. Politicians, newspaper columnists, parents, folk you walk past in the street…

Except they don’t really mean it, do they? It isn’t actually education they’re interested in, it’s certification. Those bits of paper that serve as promissory notes to buy that brighter future everyone’s after; that place at university, without which you’re condemned to the life of a social outcast; those international rankings that show our country’s better than your country – so there.

And let’s not be mealy-mouthed about it: we educationalists, guardians of the flame of truth and knowledge that we are, are right there with everyone else worshipping at the totem of the Certificate. The young people in your school might be “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors” – but who cares? The real question is: what are the exam results like? And – this really matters – how do they compare to the school down the road?

Not that I blame schools. I’d be a total hypocrite if I did. However, there’s a massive disconnect between what everyone says they want and what they actually want. “Is that a happy, confident and engaged young person I see before me? I don’t know, but look at the number of Band 1 A passes she got.”

We still have a school system thirled to the notion of training young people to pass exams. We still have parents demanding that the only thing that matters in their child’s education is coming out with enough certificates to ensure a successful future (although how that works, God alone knows). We still have politicians judging our success or failure on the annual rise or fall of SQA exam results – and using the figures as a club with which to beat their opponents.

And we still have schools and teachers abandoning all sense of perspective (and, occasionally, their moral compass) to ensure that pupils in their charge are primed, prepared and prepped to pass as many of those exams as they possibly can.

Time to move beyond the fear. There are no guarantees in life. Exam passes don’t ensure anything, other than the chance to try passing some more exams. Whether you’re successful – whatever the hell that means – has more to do with the qualities and skills you picked up along the way while trying to make sure those exam results were all you wanted them to be.

So where should we go from here? Believe it or not, I honestly think the general direction of travel in recent years has been the correct one, but there’s a long way to go. Time to take a breath, put exams and assessments in their proper place, and keep moving forward.

Robert Cassells will retire in June after 35 years teaching in Scotland, the past 20 at senior leadership level

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