Scottish Higher Results: Education Professors comments
By Professor Louise Hayward, Department of Education, University of Glasgow and Professor Jo-Anne Baird, Department of Education, University of Oxford
We are not living in normal times. In common with many countries around the world, Scotland has had to cancel their examinations and to rely on teacher judgement. The young people and their teachers who have worked so hard and who have achieved so much in such difficult circumstances are to be applauded. The pressure such sudden changes have put on examination boards also has to be recognised. They have had to generate, trial and test then implement a new system in a matter of months when normally such changes take many years.
Today young people across Scotland will receive their examination results. They are anxious because these results are high stakes. Future opportunities, for example access to particular university or college courses or to employment are limited and the examination results represent the way that Scotland chooses to open doors to these opportunities. It may not be much comfort to this year’s young people but for previous generations the stakes were even higher. Not performing well in examinations meant that doors closed. The education system in Scotland is now much more flexible and offers alternative routes such as the wide range of opportunities offered by Scotland’s colleges.
Every year in Scotland the examination results prove contentious. If the results improve, standards must be falling; if the results decline, the education system is failing. Rarely is either true
However, every year in Scotland the examination results prove contentious. If the results improve, standards must be falling; if the results decline, the education system is failing. Rarely is either true. However, any approach to assessment where the implications are so significant for individuals and their families should, and do, come under significant scrutiny. The nature of any system that seeks to ration opportunities will always lead to a situation where some are delighted and others disappointed. That happened last year and it will happen this year.
Teacher assessment has much to commend it - the teacher is able to gather evidence about more of the curriculum, knows the young person, is able to collect evidence over time rather than a single snapshot. Yet, particularly when the stakes are high, teacher assessment also faces challenges. Having teacher judgements be consistent, not only within a school, but across every school in the country is a major challenge for countries internationally. For the system to be fair, teacher judgements need to be consistent nationally.
The moderation of teachers’ professional judgements is part of a national quality assurance system to ensure parity. Without moderation, this year’s results might not only have been inconsistent, they might have been far too generous. This is what we know from research on teachers’ estimates. The consequences of that for this year’s young people could have been very damaging, if this had become known as the year that the results were inflated. There is research evidence to point to differences in teacher judgement that relate to gender, class and ability. It is crucial that due attention is paid to those to ensure that young people are treated fairly.
No method of assessment is perfect. External examinations suit some young people who thrive on the pressure - others find the pressure unbearable and struggle to cope. Have an off day on the exam day and your results can vary significantly.
No method of assessment is perfect. External examinations suit some young people who thrive on the pressure - others find the pressure unbearable and struggle to cope. Have an off day on the exam day and your results can vary significantly
Examinations are limited in what they can measure and commonly internationally lead to narrowing of the curriculum and limited approaches to learning and teaching. Significant amounts of time in 4th, 5th and 6th years are spent rehearsing for examinations and can become little more than past papers, prelims and endless tests leaving young people dissatisfied and disinterested. The Examinations become an end in themselves and learning only matters if it is in the examination.
Learning in the 21st century demands more than that. What matters for young people in future depends as much on their ability to collaborate, to be creative, to add value to society as it does on their ability to solve a quadratic equation. It is not a question of either/or. Both matter. Our qualifications system needs to change to respond to what matters for our future citizens. Teacher professional judgement will play a crucial role in that new system.
This year, as in previous years, some young people will not receive the results they so hoped for. Recognising that the system has had to change more quickly than might have been desired to respond to COVID-19, the SQA will offer a more open appeal process than has been the case in previous years. This is just. The Appeal process offers a space where evidence related to each case can be reconsidered and decisions reviewed. Where further evidence points to the need to change a grade, changes will be made. SQA should and has committed to do this.
This year, as in previous years, some young people will not receive the results they so hoped for. Recognising that the system has had to change more quickly than might have been desired to respond to COVID-19, the SQA will offer a more open appeal process than has been the case in previous years. This is just
However, as in previous years, even after Appeal some young people will remain disappointed. That is the nature of a system where future opportunities are competitive because they are limited in number. Public confidence in the qualification system is crucially important to this year’s pupils. As a nation, we owe it to our young people to value their efforts and their achievements and not to seek to ask more of this year's qualification system than we have asked of the systems in previous years. To do so would put at risk the credibility of the awards of the very young people we seek to support.
Professors Hayward and Baird are independent academics (Professors of Education) and do not speak on behalf of their institutions. They are members of a number of advisory groups, including SQA’s Qualifications Committee but are not employees and do not speak on behalf of SQA.