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Unpeeling the assessment onion

Teachers have chosen the wrong target in saying the SQA 'dictates'

what is taught, says Judith Gillespie

The complaints raised by disgruntled teachers in the booklet Listen to the teachers, and highlighted in The TES Scotland, will strike a chord with many. The problems of an overcrowded curriculum, pressure to get youngsters through exams, the overload of paperwork, staff shortages and the imposition of a faculty system are so commonly raised as almost to define Scottish secondary education today.

However, to conclude that this is all due to the Scottish Qualifications Authority is to focus the blame on an easy but wrong target. Those who know that I am on the SQA board will simply shake their heads and observe that I have obviously taken the government shilling. However, I write this as an individual, as a parent and, yes, with the experience of an SQA board member. But, more particularly, I write as someone who has been involved (as a participant but still an observer) in a range of government policy committees since the inception of Higher Still in the early 1990s.

Let us be clear: it is the Government that sets policy, the SQA and others that implement it. Most people would probably accept that the SQA has nothing directly to do with staff shortages or the introduction of faculty systems, but it is also not responsible for the current assessment regime, although it does have to apply it efficiently.

The normal process is for potential policy to be identified, written up into a consultation paper, then handed over to several working parties for detailed development. This is the process that lay behind the Higher Still development - although, in order to get maximum participation, the Government probably went overboard - all in all, some 500 people (including many teachers and headteachers) were involved.

It was perhaps inevitable that all these committees produced a camel, not a horse, as the year 2000 was to prove. While the immediate cause of the meltdown was the SQA's inability to cope with the vast amount of data, the real cause was the complexity of the Higher Still proposal and the requirement that course awards depended on unit passes.

In the aftermath, there was much soul-searching. We know about the investigations of the SQA and the parliamentary inquiry into the whole process. Perhaps what is less well-known is that the various policy committees similarly considered what had happened. Indeed, I sat on one that contemplated the discontinuation of unit assessments. But there was not unanimity and the moment passed.

Instead, the SQA had to set about making sure that the data-handling problems never happened again. When a system of checking, cross-checking and yet further checking resulted in a successful diet, this process became locked in, with schools required to play their part. The pressure that schools feel today is the product of the need for accurate data, but the need for data arises from the whole Higher Still development, which in turn emerged from the government policy process.

As for the pressure that teachers feel to teach to the exams, this started with the Conservative administration in the 1980s and 1990s whose policy was to use market forces to force up standards and have schools judged on the basis of their results. That has been carried forward by the accountability agenda, the government policy that 50 per cent of the cohort should go on to higher education.

It has also been fuelled by a genuine attempt by the SQA to help teachers understand what the examiners are looking for. Publication of its marking schemes and a series of seminars on "understanding standards" are meant to be helpful, but they do have the practical impact of telling teachers what to do in order to get their pupils through the exams. As this is what parents and students want, this is what teachers do.

We therefore have a serious dilemma. Do we recognise that assessment is, at some level, a subjective process where the examiner can reward good work by a candidate who has not done exactly what was required, but may fail an equally good candidate whose individual approach did not pass the examiner's subjective test? Or do we make the process as objective as possible by being very open about what is required such that no one strays outside the very narrow confines of the exam system?

Whereas I have heard many parents talk about the need to reduce the amount of assessment in S4-S6, the stoutest defenders of this multi-exam process are teachers. Which teachers, the authors of Listen to the teachers will ask? "Their colleagues" is the answer. Freeing people from the strait-jacket of assessment is like unpeeling an onion. There are so many layers binding everyone in, and the process of unwrapping it will cause tears along the way.

Judith Gillespie is development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and an SQA board member.

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