‘Testing treadmill’ in Scottish schools set to continue

Lack of clarity from SNP means another year of “excessive workload” in Scottish schools, says union

Emma Seith

'Testing treadmill' in schools sparked by unit assessments set to continue due to lack of clarity over their removal, warns unions

Scottish pupils and teachers are facing another year of “excessive workload and over-assessment” due to the government’s failure to make “a clear decision” about whether unit assessments are to continue to be available this year, the country’s largest teaching union has said.

Unit assessments have been blamed for creating a testing treadmill in schools.

The Scottish government scrapped them in September 2016 in a bid to tackle teacher workload, but then reneged on that decision on “an interim basis only” and “in exceptional circumstances” six months later after realising that pupils could leave S4 with no qualifications.

Pupils who fail the National 5 exam (roughly equivalent to GCSE) can use the unit assessments to gain a National 4 in a process known as “recognising positive achievement” (RPA).

Now a freedom of information request has revealed that Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, wrote to the education secretary John Swinney at the end of August demanding a “clear decision” over the future of RPA. Without this clarity the “poor picture” last year would be replicated, it warned.

The union argued last year schools flouted the government’s directive that the use of RPA should be minimised, saying it was “far in excess of exceptional” and in some schools was “the universal approach”. The result was “neither the burden of teacher workload nor of student assessment was alleviated as promised”, it said.

In its letter to Mr Swinney the union continued: “The frustration of our members is two-fold: at being kept in the dark about an arrangement perceived to be critical to presentation decisions, until beyond the last minute; and at the reality of another year ahead of excessive workload and over-assessment for large numbers of teachers and students on National 5 courses.”

Other papers seen by Tes Scotland reveal more than one in ten pupils presented for National 5 this year also sat the unit assessments only meant to be undertaken in “exceptional circumstances”.

The figures – which have come to light in the minutes of the Scottish Education Council meeting held in May - show 12 per cent of pupils presented for N5 this year were also put through the required number of units to be eligible for an N4 through RPA.

The members of the SEC, which includes secondary headteacher representatives, directors of education, parents representatives and teachers organisations, concluded this “did not represent ‘exceptional circumstances’”.

The papers also say in “a small number of individual schools” whole classes continued to be entered for both the units and the course.

However, in its letter to Mr Swinney, the EIS said even if a clear decision over RPA was to come now it would be too little, too late because schools have already placed students on N5 courses, some with the intention of using RPA.  

“The right decision to revoke RPA, if made now, would therefore come at entirely the wrong time for schools and their N5 students,” it wrote.

The union concluded that the removal of RPA in time for the next school year was “an absolute necessity”.

A Scottish government spokesman said: “We have been very clear that the use of Recognising Positive Achievement should only be used in exceptional circumstances. The issues raised by EIS are being considered and we will communicate any decisions shortly.”

In September last year, Tes Scotland revealed the cost of scrapping the unit assessments had hit £5.5 million.

Meanwhile, the changes to exams and coursework to compensate for their removal have prompted warnings that the exam body, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, has “gone further than they had to” and that high-stakes exams are making a comeback. Next year there will be Higher exams for five practical subjects where previously no exam existed.

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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