Orcadian Column, 8 June 2021


These days, the mere thought of having to sit exams again is enough to bring me out in cold sweats. By and large I did fine at school and university, but the run up to exam time was always enormously stressful and the aftermath a blessed relief.

These days, the mere thought of having to sit exams again is enough to bring me out in cold sweats. By and large I did fine at school and university, but the run up to exam time was always enormously stressful and the aftermath a blessed relief.

So I have profound sympathy for those going through this process just now, particularly on the back of 15 months of highly disrupted learning. It’s not clear what the longer term effects of this disruption will be on our young people, but even the most resilient will have been impacted, despite the best efforts of teachers and other school staff.

Unfortunately, during this period, neither pupils nor teachers have been well served by Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Agency, the organisations responsible for overseeing our education system. The case for fundamental reform of both these bodies is now compelling, even if the First Minister was happy to declare last week that she had complete confidence in the SQA. That confidence is shared by precious few, and does not even include Nicola Sturgeon’s own Education Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville who later the same day announced to parliament her intention to review the roles and responsibilities of the SQA and Education Scotland.

This is not the only area in which the First Minister appears to be in denial about what is happening in education. She continues to insist that there are no exams for pupils in the ‘senior phase’ of secondary schools this year and that grades will be determined by teacher assessment and judgment. In reality, however, when schools returned after the Easter break, the goalposts had moved. The alternative ‘assessment checkpoint system’ is not based on coursework and the professional judgment of teachers, rather it has relied on exams in all but name with a continuous series of tests being carried out under exam conditions.

With the traditional exam ‘leave’ cancelled, pupils have found themselves subjected to a prolonged and stressful process of assessment for which many feel underprepared.  As a result, anxiety levels have been further heightened at what everyone acknowledges can be an extremely difficult time for pupils.  As one local parent described it to me recently, “this has been a wearying and demoralising experience, no matter how motivated the student”.

For teachers too, it has been far from easy. Having spent months developing evidence of attainment based on coursework, teachers have faced the added burden in recent weeks of setting and marking exams as the SQA has insisted that ‘demonstrated attainment” is the only game in town. As the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association argued, this has forced their members “to tie themselves in knots gathering evidence”.

After what happened last year, it does not seem unreasonable to ask why lessons appear not to have been learned. The drip feeding of information, the lack of transparency in discussions between the SQA and Ministers and the treatment of young learners almost as an afterthought have uncomfortable echoes of last year’s debacle which saw the then Education Secretary, John Swinney come within a whisker of losing a vote of ‘no confidence’ in parliament. Mr Swinney has since been ‘reshuffled’ but his successor is struggling to deal with his legacy.

To her credit, Ms Sommerville has at least acknowledged the need for reform. Yet she still seems to be in denial about the scale of what is needed, not just in dealing with the exams mess but in rebuilding an education system that showed signs of stalling even before Covid struck last year.

This process needs to result in greater trust being placed in the skills, professionalism and judgment of teachers. It must also, though, be informed by the experience of our young people. To that end, I have written to those in Orkney who have been through this process, inviting them to offer their thoughts.  I suspect most will just be glad it’s over and keen to move on. However, the least they deserve is for their views to be sought and fed back to Ministers. That is certainly what I intend to do.


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