By Rab Bruce’s Spider

We all know how stressful a time it can be when sitting important exams, and also when waiting for the results. I am not going to get too deep into the details of the current unedifying row except to make a couple of points.

The first is that the Unionist Parties are, as usual, whipping up a storm of protest without actually offering any viable alternative solution to the one the SQA has put in place. They are also turning a blind eye to the very similar situations in England and Wales, where no appeals are being permitted at all to the decisions on downgrading. Political opposition is fine, but surely it is incumbent on anyone with genuine aspirations to be a serious politician to come up with a better idea than simply to demand the Education Minister’s resignation. As far as I can tell, not a single Unionist politician has come up with any serious alternative system except, presumably, to allow the teachers’ assessments to stand unchallenged. In this case, the pass rate would be so high that the Unionists would then be able to scream from the rooftops that the system was clearly not fit for purpose.

This leads onto my second point. If the pass rate was unusually high because of the change of procedure for measuring students’ abilities, then having politicians casting aspersions as to the validity of the qualifications earned is only going to harm the students. Employers and Universities would undoubtedly view any such qualifications as suspect because of the furore created by people with a political agenda.

But the main point is that it is perhaps the whole system of examinations that is questionable. Some students are unable to perform at their best under the pressure of an examination situation. Others may skimp on their course work because they know they can perform well in an exam. It is a one-day opportunity for students to show their ability, and all sorts of things can have an impact on how they perform. Yes, I know that the SQA has procedures in place which allow students some dispensations for their performance being affected by outside circumstances, but we cannot ignore the fact that teachers know their pupils best. If the teachers have marked students highly, then perhaps it is because the majority of those students perform better over the course of a year than they do in a three hour examination.

So perhaps we should be looking at whether exams are really the best way to assess ability. The PISA results are often used to bash the Scottish Government, who seem inclined to accept that Scottish Education should move more towards a learning by rote system in order to attain better PISA scores for the nation. Perhaps what the current situation shows is that this is very much the wrong way to go. If the teachers’ assessments are correct, then the current generation of students has far more ability than exam results would indicate.

Of course, moving away from an examination system would present problems of its own, not least the need to have a consistent approach all across the nation. It would also require new checking and validation procedures to prevent schools awarding marks which are artificially high in order to boost their own position in rankings. However, none of these problems are insurmountable, so maybe we should be having a radical re-think about how we measure students’ abilities. Because, in the short term, there is no guarantee that Covid will not still be around next year. And if we can devise a proper, measurable and valid way of awarding qualifications based on course work, why not keep that system going forwards? Yes, the unionists will howl about it being too easy when higher results are achieved, but they are going to howl whatever we do, and unless they can come up with a better idea, why not give it a try?