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, exam.scot 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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