On Aussie Rules football, Picasso’s advice and English exams

by Peter McNally

The winning team must sing a song on the final whistle. Melbourne based teams regularly play home games in Cairns. Their strips don’t have sleeves. Things are a bit different in the world of Australian Rules Football. Another quirk is their Player of the Year equivalent. The ‘Best and Fairest’ not only requires greatness at key moments but also consistency across the season and, most strikingly, discipline on and off the field. One red card or tabloid accusation and you can forget it. As Picasso probably didn’t say – ‘A good artist borrows. A great artist steals.’

Our starting point for the revolution we need in our exam system should be to look outwardly and widely. Below the Senior Phase we have Early Years and BGE which kicks things off with playful pedagogy and ends up with breadth, depth, personalisation and choice. Above us we have FE/HE who are increasingly assessing group work and presentations. The Senior Phase approach to assessment is the Victorian anomaly in the middle.

A bit of background

Once we’ve done that we then need to take a really good look at ourselves. I teach English and it saddens me to think (ok, sorry for the idealism) that we turn the analysis and discussion of great literature into derivative formulas. I can be really guilty of kidding myself on that we are a ‘skills based’ subject when we look the other way as pupils simply regurgitate screeds of notes. The reality is that too many kids rote learn essays or planned responses in their National 5 and Higher exams. Part of the problem is that the SQA and their copious documentation isn’t specific about this. They leave us enough rope to hang ourselves. We grab greedily, twist tightly and jump with relish. Some of us might be better than others in how we interpret the guidelines. Some of us work for authorities that don’t allow this. I’m working on the assumption that anyone reading this agrees that reform is required. If I was to apply a sprinkle of Marxist Theory (and I hope not mansplain!) to Woolf’s key concept in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ then I simply can’t see how a high stakes, one off, regurge-athon is in any way fair. Candidates lucky enough to wake up on exam day morn in their own bedroom, grab their iPad from their Post-It strewn workspace for some last minute revision, sip their green tea and consume a hearty bowl of granola and fruit might be in a slightly better place to remember most of what they have rote learned than a candidate who missed breakfast that day.

I’m really proud of the Sports Journalism course we offer in my school and hope to turn this into a Media NPA. I know that there examples across Scotland of alternative assessments. This is great and we need more of it. But we need to look at our flagship awards first. I can’t speak for every qualification so am going to look at my own, think about some changes and see if I can draw any conclusions.

How might I improve assessment within my own subject?

I love elements of the AH English course and I think a starting point would be taking some ideas from that course and developing them.

Textual Analysis

Candidates are given an unseen text to analyse. There isn’t an overly proscriptive assessment grid and given it lasts for an hour and a half allows candidates to focus on quality not quantity. Could we replace the N5/H critical essays with something similar? Pupils, in my experience, love engaging with the texts in class. By doing it this way we could take a bit of the pressure off and allow them to engage in an exam situation where they can demonstrate their skills of analysis and share their opinions. And they can’t come into the exam hall with pre-planned screeds.

Literary Study

Could we blend the Scottish Set Text (N5 + H) and the Literary Study (AH) and make it an open book assessment on a previously studied work(s) of Scottish Literature. If the question is a comparison then it means we wouldn’t have the reference/example rigmarole of the first 10/12 marks followed by a rigidly structured comparison but actually get an extended piece of writing on a text they know well (and have access to). I know a fair few teachers who get a nit mumpty about the Scottish Set Text. The assessment in its current form is a mess. But I do think it is important that we read the voices from where we live.


We really need to do something about this. Equity and equality are out the window as far the folio is concerned. I actually think it’s a great thing that we assess kids writing skills. Giving them the opportunity to think, plan, write then edit something creative, personal and discursive is fantastic. I don’t actually think the way we assess it is terrible either. I’d need to be careful here not to give the SQA any undue praise. The problem stems from (too many of) us. Forgetting tutors, the extra support I’ve seen given to pupils even in schools means that the final folio isn’t really a representation of their own work. In the current system I don’t really see why management would want to change anything. If we were to get the kids to write their essays in class, in front of us, then grades might drop. The data analysts’ and league table fantasists’ worst nightmare. So what can we do? I would be tempted to scrap it but what might work is copying Maths and send a folio that ‘shows your working’. It could trace the journey of a piece of writing and include checkpoints throughout the year when certain sections need to be submitted. It could start with a plan, a first draft with corrections, a plan for further edits and the final piece.


I don’t think I’d be an advocate of introducing this or something similar into the N5 and Higher courses. Many of the skills have been assessed elsewhere. The only other element that hasn’t been covered is the Spoken Language Unit we have at N5 and Higher. The SQA have put it on the chopping board. It’s clear what they think of it. I admit that I probably should be a bit better when it comes to this. I treat it as a perfunctory box to tick. I do teach and assess the skills regularly. It just feels a bit forced when recording this. Universities use presentations and group course work as assessment tools. I don’t know the ins and outs of this but don’t see why we can’t be influenced by them. We could work with the SQA and add a bit more gravitas and weighting to this. Schools are abuzz with signage, chatter and complicated cover requirements when Drama. Music or Modern Languages have their practical assessments. Does English engender even a passing emotion when we assess talk? Maybe we do have to look at ourselves a bit with this one but a few amendments could turn this into a far more worthwhile assessment.

What are my conclusions?

That I’m not even convinced by my amendments. I need to sit down with colleagues and discuss these. And I think teachers of other subjects need to do the same. We need to ask if our current assessments are fit for purpose. We probably have to define the purpose too. I do think that if we can assess a bit more regularly with a more relaxed approach we could get a more realistic appraisal of a learner. It will also remove some of the undue pressures that mean we will never get a Leicester City 2016 story when any school can top the (admittedly ghastly) league tables.

Where do we start?

Filling in bureaucratic SQA proposals or going through SIPs/FIPs/HGIOS statements isn’t going to help. These might lead to incremental changes. We need huge changes. Rampant managerialism, data worship and League Table Leadership means that neither the SQA nor Senior Management Teams, even considering the ‘Empowerment Agenda’, have any real desire to upset the apple cart. Desire to change the status quo is merely sloganistic. They are the status quo. Discussion at departmental level and online will be the crucible for new ideas. Once we have a position and every subject submits proposals for their own assessments we can then find our points of agreement (and points of clash) and a position can be formed. Once this (not insubstantial) organising has been completed we need to start agitating. It is my view that the only way to enact significant changes is with the support of the unions. We need to channel the Aussie Rules’ quirks, take Picasso’s advice and come up with radical ideas. Creating networks, sharing ideas and shouting with a collective voice are the only ways we will be able get our ideas heard. We need to utilise the links to the real decision makers that the unions have and make it clear that an overhaul of our exam system is required.

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