Awaiting the Priestley report

by Isabelle Boyd

As we approach the end of September, all of us with an interest in Scottish education are awaiting the report from Professor Mark Priestley. Following the Scottish Government U-turn around the 2020 SQA examination results, the Deputy First Minister announced that he had asked Professor Mark Priestley from Stirling University to lead an independent review. The review would look at events since the cancellation of the 2020 diet and consider a range of related topics: the advice from SQA and Local Authorities to schools and centres; approaches developed in estimating grades; moderation methodology used by SQA; the impact of the SQA awards on young people and families; and feedback from teachers.

It appeared from the DFM’s statement to parliament on 11 August 2020 that a full exploration of potential new approaches to assessment and certification has been given to the OECD as part of the current Curriculum for Excellence Review.  This felt like the long grass for such a vital key pressing issue and was one of the reasons behind the setting up of   We should use the COVID 19 lockdown and subsequent awards debacle to explore possibilities around exams and certification.

In the last few weeks, I have engaged with individuals and groups looking at our current system and exploring alternative ways of certification and examination. At a recent event, I asked participants “Are you satisfied with the current examination and certification system?” and 100% responded “No”. The reasons for the dissatisfaction are those which have been explored in detail on this site and in other media. In summary, the reasons given include:

  • many great things happen in our schools but these don’t seem to count as exams dominate everything
  • our system needs to change to capture a wider set of achievements and skills. Building the Curriculum 5 created an entitlement for young people to have the full range of their achievements recognised. The exam system does not provide for this
  • we still have over assessment and exams at end of S4 and S5 and S6 ill-serve young people especially given that 60+% of young people stay on to end of S6
Percentage of 2018-19 school leavers by stave of leaving: 11.9% leave in S4, 26.8% leave in S5, 61.2% stay on to the end of S6.
Source: Summary Statistics for Attainment No 2 25 Feb 2020 Scottish Government
  • pressure on teachers to teach to the test
  • the two-term dash is still alive, to the detriment of depth and breadth
  • the needs of many in our system are not met.

When seeking views about alternative systems, I asked two questions: Should awards be based solely on teacher judgment and continuous assessment? Or should we have a mixed system with different methodology for different disciplines / should we have a final exam system plus element of continuous assessment?

Very few participants were in favour of a system that relied solely on teacher judgement and in exploring a different model, participants were split 40/60 about no exams versus a mixed model.

However, even the 60% who favour some sort of exam that tests knowledge, understanding, memory, and recall want different approaches to the current pen and paper, all or nothing system. There needs to be a variety of methodology available for different subjects.  The one size fits all approach of the current system feels stifling.

There is certainly an appetite to explore digital approaches, open badges – which are becoming more and more prevalent in adult learning and open book exams which increased in use at Universities in 2020 in response to the COVID lockdown. This approach is also more akin to work based practices. As one participant noted, “I can’t think of any situation in the workplace where I’ve had to work from memory in an exam situation … I have resources available to me”.

There is also a growing body who favour modular courses and interdisciplinary project-based courses and assignments as evidenced in International Baccalaureate: the Scottish version of which has a very small numbers of candidates undertaking these courses. This is a pity and begs the question: why did the Scottish Baccalaureate fail to catch fire? Can the blame be laid at the feet of the universities who did not value the worth of these qualifications?

Is the current exam system driven by a blame culture whereby the primary schools blame secondaries for their curriculum rationale and secondaries blame university entry requirements to justify offering traditional, tried and tested courses? Alternatives exist such as Open Badge modular courses and National Progression Awards, but at school level the uptake is very small. Is this because their worth / value in the current system is not high due to perceived low esteem in the eyes of employers and Higher Education? This then leads to a lack of courage to make changes in a system where conformity is safe and is condoned.

All in all, though, following input and discussion I would conclude from this sample, albeit limited, that “exams as we know them have had their day”.
As an eternal optimist, I hope that Professor Priestley’s report will be bold and courageous and go beyond the remit to set the scene for a new examination and certification system for Scotland.

Maybe in these last few weeks we have seen the beginning of the end for the current system. The evidence I would cite is the Deputy First Minister’s statement to Education and Skills Committee earlier this month that his “ambition remains to run a 2021 examination diet. However, in these exceptional times, the SQA and education recovery group are looking at contingencies which will be appropriate to the circumstances”. Furthermore, Mr Swinney has stepped in and asked the SQA to delay the promised guidance on changes to 2021 exams and courses until Professor Mark Priestley’s review is published.

This evidence could suggest that the 2021 diet will be cancelled or so drastically altered for some candidates that it sounds the death knell for the current SQA system as we know it. Here’s hoping …

What now?

  • Leave a comment below.
  • Join in the discussion on Twitter by using the #examscot hashtag, and following our central account @examscot
  • Join the discussion on our Facebook page
  • If you’d like to submit your own blog-length opinions, or contribute to a fact-based article, do get in touch with us at or by direct message on Twitter; we’d love to feature your thoughts or research on the site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top