Exams: Why has it all gone wrong?

By Liam Fowley, MSYP for Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley


(Please note, this is not a piece on behalf of SYP or the stance the organisation takes)


Exam – a word that makes nearly any senior phase student shudder at the thought of it. I could place a large sum of money on the fact that most, if not all, students dread the thought of exams. Maybe a more accurate way of describing it would be they dread the thought of what comes with exams. Many students will find themselves stressed, riddled with anxiety, feeling isolated and overcome with a general sense of dread. All these phrases are not what we want associated with an education system – so what is going wrong?

A famous man once said “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid”. That pretty much summarises it. Why are we judging learners by their ability to sit an exam at the end of an academic year? We have different types of learners. We need to make sure we assess their learning, in a way that will suit them and not in a way that suits the system.

If we cast our minds back to March 2020, for the first time in anyone’s living memory the national examinations were cancelled. Fast forward a few months, and the results were out – and a fair amount of uproar was caused. Confusion was rife with practitioners and most importantly young people, they felt let down by the system they should trust. But that aside, we saw the clear difference in what the 2019 results looked like, and what the teacher assessed grades of 2020 looked like.

This presents us with a very important question: which set of results is more accurate? 

If teachers are predicting grades that are so starkly different from the prior year – one of them is wrong. I would be happy to place another large sum of money on it not being the expert teachers being in the wrong.

COVID-19 has shown us what could be wrong, so when and how do we go about changing that? When: now. As we recover from this pandemic, the world is going to change the way it operates and the qualification system needs to change to suit too.

The big question is how. I don’t think any one person has the answer to that. It will take time to work out the answer. There are a few things that need to happen though: 

  • Firstly, Make sure we are developing the system around the learner, not trying to make a system for learners to fit into. 
  • Secondly, involve young people every step of the way. Make decisions like this with young people and not for young people. It will not be of any great difficulty to find young people willing to share their concerns and ideas!
  • Finally, allow everyone to be heard, there are no wrong opinions. Different opinions make a better plan.

We need to embrace change and put young people back at the centre of qualifications – not results. Young people are magnificent human beings and if we tap into their style of learning and unlock their full potential, it benefits society as a whole. We all win.

So, let’s do it, let’s change exams for the better and involve young people in the process of doing it. A line I like to use a lot, and I think may be as pertinent here as anything:

It may not always be easy, but it will always be worth it.


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