Starting a new conversation about examination and certification in Scottish schools

by James McEnaney

If ever there was an opportunity to have a serious conversation about examination and certification in Scotland, it is surely now.

The débacle around the 2020 results has pulled back the curtain on many of the fundamental issues with our national approach in this area, and even the two most powerful people in the country – Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney – have accepted that there could be a case for a new approach. Unfortunately, there seems little prospect of the necessary, national debate being facilitated by a technocratic OECD review, as the government wishes. Nor is there much faith in the ability of the SQA to manage such a process.

That is where, with luck, comes in. This is not the start of a campaign: it is a call for a serious discussion about where we go from here, with all options on the table.

There are two fundamental areas to be examined. The first is: what sort of certification system do we need and want in Scotland? Do we wish to retain the annual examination cycle we currently depend upon, with students facing final assessments in S4, S5 and S6? Would something like Ireland’s Leaving Certificate, Finland’s National Matriculation Exam, or New Zealand’s National Certificate of Education Achievement offer a better way forward? Is it time to embrace the 21st Century and adopt the Open Badges approach?

This is not an easy question to confront. In order to decide on the best system we need to determine our priorities – what do we expect end of school certification to achieve, and for whom?

The answer could have wide-reaching implications for the education system more broadly. Would a different approach to certification necessitate, for example, a change to the traditional structure of primary and secondary school? If so, would some form of specialisation in the latter-stages of provision make sense? What might this mean for teaching qualifications?

Once we know what type of system we want, we would then need to decide how it functions. What mechanisms are we to use to assess, in as accurate, fair and meaningful a way as possible, the progress and potential of young people?

At present the vast majority of subjects assess in the same fundamental way: a one-off, high-risk, traditional-style examination in May. Many courses also include an element of coursework or performance which combines with the exam to deliver the final grade. Is this system, broadly unchanged in decades, best suited to our needs, ideals and ambitions?

It is here that the issue of subject/domain specialism arises – put simply, should all areas of the curriculum assess in generally similar ways (as now) or do different areas require bespoke assessment designs? Are the approaches that work best for sciences the same as those that suit the creative arts? Is it reasonable to make the same assumptions about the measurement of mathematical and linguistic skills? Do we see greater value in an approach that offers surface-level, cross-domain comparability or one that prioritises assessment validity and reliability in each area?

The hope is that people from a range of backgrounds will be willing to share their own ideas, but that of course means that the chances of agreement on a single solution are close to zero. That’s absolutely fine – we want to start a process, not demand a particular solution. The goal is to provide not an answer but rather a set of options that can challenge the long-standing and deep-rooted assumptions about what is best for, and possible within, Scottish education. That’s the only way to have a real chance to ‘build back better’.

James McEnaney is a college lecturer and former secondary school teacher from Glasgow. He is also a journalist and commentator on education issues in Scotland.

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4 thoughts on “Starting a new conversation about examination and certification in Scottish schools”

  1. Great starter piece.
    I don’t know exactly what kind of examination and certification system I prefer other than one that ensures equity and equality. One that recognises and rewards young people for what they can do rather than mainly what they can remember.
    Looking forward to learning, sharing and debating possibilities.
    Welcome to

    1. What you are suggesting Isabelle does, I think, begin to open the door for a system that matches the needs of citizens and employers in the 21st Century. Our assessment system, like our curriculum, is, I believe, actually rooted in 19th Century times. Maybe at one time ‘Sabre Tooth Tiger chasing with fire,’ would have been a very useful life skill ; it isn’t any more! The time is indeed right for a discussion involving ALL stakeholders about getting the Scottish system fit for purpose.

  2. That’s a good starting point – worth remembering current system reflects not learners but teaching unions , politicians , universities , and what others have asked of it.

    The Finnish system really worth looking at – but I remember too when some educationalists were spouting that Finland was a country without national assessment. There is a lot of nonsense that floats around this whole debate . We need more holistic way to measure attainment.

    If there are lessons of last 5 years from our own system it is that teachers have resisted making local assessment decisions within a national framework and I think for real change to happen that needs to be properly tackled by everyone’s sake. Most of all the learners

    Assessment can take many forms . There is technology to make it much simpler for everyone . There is too lots of bad online assessment so it is not a panacea and nothing should replace teacher judgement . The way ahead is digital portfolios and assessment on demand , microcredentials , and digital certification.

    Remember too that UCAS is an industry too , Europe and Scotland have the SCQF – that learners need awards that have national and international currency . We do them a disservice if any new system does not pay cognisance of this.

    And finally we have many system and assessment experts within SQA they run many different systems at scale – this needs tapped into. If all agencies and unions had will to make system more learner centred it could have happened by now.

    If I made one big change it would be no national assessment until learner is ready to leave school – and then not a diet of exams in a fixed time in the year .
    But perhaps big assessment needs to stay at end of academic year for pastoral reasons .

    But lose age and stage.

    The presentation of a portfolio of work , a teacher statement and some national online assessment elements roll on roll off – all submitted for a national moderation process .

  3. Wonderful website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any
    message boards that cover the same topics discussed here? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get advice from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest.

    If you have any suggestions, please let me know.
    Appreciate it!

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