Why exams must not obscure everything else schools do

SQA results day: Too much focus on exam results ‘skews’ people’s view of what happens in schools, says Gordon Cairns

Gordon Cairns

Exam results steal the headlines - but schools are about so much more than this, writes Gordon Cairns

Education receives a growing share of the media attention year on year – unfortunately, generally for more negative stories than positive ones. That runs the gamut from walls collapsing in newly built schools, to failing teachers up before the General Teaching Council for Scotland fitness-to-teach panel, to hand-wringing about “falling educational standards” (where radio phone-in callers exult about exams apparently being much harder in their day).

One piece of positive education news, however, is guaranteed to make schools and editors across Scotland equally very happy this week. On Wednesday – after exam-results day tomorrow – the front pages of our newspapers will be dominated by photographs of ecstatic young people jumping for joy, with either certificates in their hands or mobile phones held aloft as they “spontaneously” celebrate their five A passes at Higher level.

These images, with accompanying soundbites from headteachers carefully crafted by the education authorities’ media teams, are great PR for schools (and these crème de la crème students' results do another fantastic thing for their institutions by pushing them up that other media construction, school league tables). But behind schools' sporadic appearances in the press are other unreported, not-quite-as-exciting stories and issues – even though they are just as important.

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SQA results day 2019: What to look out for

For example, we should not forget that the intense pressure of being a five-As student and being in “that” photograph increases the levels of anxiety across the upper school and can make other students who achieved an exceptional set of results on their own terms feel disappointed with themselves. Rather than an exam being what it should be – a test of your own ability to help you progress either to university, college or a job – it becomes a pointless competition between peers.

The pressure of SQA results day

It is hardly surprising that this artificial pressure has caused Childline Scotland to provide exam-day hotlines to those students unable to cope with the perceived failure. It puts schools between a rock and a hard place: they want to push their charges to do their best, but this can make it hard to mentally prepare them for the possibility of failure as this might be seen as lowering expectations. Generally speaking, much of the stress around exams comes from students competing against their friends to be the "best".

And the 100,000-plus pupils who sat half a million exams this spring are a minority of the 700,000 total population of young people in school in Scotland. The focus on this one day in August skews the overall impression of what is happening in schools.

Preparing pupils to do well in exams is, of course, important, but so too is offering a broad education to our future decision-makers entering a complex world. It could be argued, for example, that a poorly educated populace has led us to the brink of a catastrophic no-deal exit from the EU. Equally, helping the next generation to make informed choices about carbon-neutral lifestyles and developing resilience and strong mental health are as important as helping them achieve a perfect record of exam results. But these things are harder to capture in an image than an ecstatic face on exam-results day.

In between all the negative news and the exam joy, the majority of what happens in schools occurs in spaces between those disproportionately reported events. We would do well to remember that.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English based in Scotland

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