Pupils ‘drowning’ under the weight of assessment

5th August 2016 at 01:00
Teachers’ worrying workload for new National courses acknowledged by the SQA

Scotland’s new National courses have left teachers and pupils “drowning” in assessment, and teenagers are at risk of “collapsing under the burden”, damning research from the body in charge of them has shown.

One union boss said that the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s findings, based on visits to 40 schools, are confirmation that the new assessment regime faced by Scotland’s secondary pupils is “unsustainable in its current form”.

The verdict on controversial unit assessments – which get an entire report to themselves (bit.ly/SQAreports) – is overwhelmingly negative: 88.7 per cent of teachers said these had worked “badly” in their subject.

‘Neverending’ assessment

The SQA, which also canvassed views in two separate online surveys of over 3,000 and 337 teachers for its reports, identified “a huge concern about the volume of unit assessment” across all subjects, with teachers’ comments including “There is never an escape” and “Assessment is neverending”.

Even worse, most teachers did not think that unit assessments improved teaching or learning, instead viewing them as “just something to get through”. School leaders said that, even where there were benefits, they were completely “outweighed by the amount of staff and pupil energy required”.

School leaders also reported their pupils “collapsing” and “crumbling” under the strain of over-assessment.

Parents have contacted some schools to express fears that the extra pressure was endangering their children’s mental health. One pupil said that the volume of assessment “felt like drowning”.

Meanwhile, school leaders said, the latechanging SQA advice on new qualifications “torments the life out of people”, with staff “overwhelmed” by weekly updates.

There are some positives in the report, with staff split equally on whether the new qualifications were encouraging a new way of learning: the potential for personalisation, for example, is praised in music, PE and Advanced Higher biology.

Overall, however, teachers largely saw the Curriculum for Excellence senior phase being driven by assessment, with new qualifications falling short of – or, in some cases, directly contradicting – the more flexible approach to learning promised by CfE.

Some comments from pupils reflected uniform approaches to learning that CfE was supposed to have left behind: “You were seen as an individual in S1-3. It wasn’t like that in S4 and S5,” said one.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that unit assessments “dictated teaching approaches” – rather than liberating them – and often duplicated effort by testing the same things that an exam would.

“It’s clear that the assessment regime is not working and is unsustainable in its current form,” added Mr Flanagan, whose secondary members recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action over excessive SQA-related workload.

On the various SQA reports, he said: “They have spent five months confirming to themselves what people have already been telling them for the past year. If they’d spent that time actually dealing with the issue, we would be a lot further on.”

‘A step in the right direction’

Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that he was “pleased to see that the SQA has been listening to secondary teachers” and “unequivocally acknowledging that there are serious workload issues arising as a result of its assessment procedures”.

Mr Duncan said that some of the solutions that had been proposed by the SQA were “a step in the right direction”.

He welcomed the authority’s recognition that, in reducing workload, different subjects needed different approaches.

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said that the SQA deserved praise for “a very robust self-assessment” that was “if anything, even more robust than what I have heard from our members”.

An SQA spokesman told TESS that the evidence it had gathered had already been used to inform a report by the government’s Working Group on Assessment and National Qualifications (“‘Unsustainable’ workload for teachers and pupils,” TESS, 13 May).

The group’s report (bit.ly/QualsWorkload) had established a range of reasons for teachers’ mounting workload, with unit assessments among them.

“Some of these factors are the direct responsibility of SQA: the remainder must be addressed by others within the education system,” said the spokesman.

The SQA has already introduced various measures to tackle workload and is currently implementing a three-year plan that it is “confident …will alleviate workload concerns arising from assessment, reassessment and the recording of evidence while, at the same time, maintaining the standards and credibility of our qualifications”.

One SQA report warns, however, that any move to end unit assessments would have some knock-on consequences, such as longer exams.

A Scottish government spokesman said: “SQA and Education Scotland have provided unprecedented support to teachers for the introduction of the new qualifications.”

The spokesman added that the May report had set out “concrete steps” to reduce workload and June’s Education Delivery Plan from the government “makes clear” that teachers and pupils will help to design assessment.


Under examination: concerns over National qualifications

Some of the key issues raised in the SQA’s new reports on National qualifications:

Local authorities are starting to take more control after initially giving schools a “fairly free rein” to develop their own curriculum models.

There has been “little move away” from the “two-term dash” to Higher.

Not all teachers are keen on the flexibility promised by Curriculum for Excellence: the SQA finds that some “don’t want freedom” and would prefer more explicit guidance on, for example, handling unit assessments.

Some schools have “little strategy or structure” for introducing more vocational qualifications and building links with colleges and employers.

Teachers feel the pace of learning is not fast enough in S1-3.

Schools have adopted new qualifications in a range of ways – some even complete National 4 courses as early as S2.

Teachers see a “huge jump” up from National 4 to National 5, and the view that N4 should have an external exam is “fairly widespread”.

Teachers have reported “massive CPD issues” in some subjects, especially where courses have amalgamated.

Schools leaders “almost unanimously” said that finding information on the SQA’s website was “difficult and confusing”.

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