Status Quo or Something Else?

by George Gilchrist

The current debacle and furore around examination results across Scotland, and the rest of the UK, has revealed to many some of the inequities built into our education systems, especially for those who are already disadvantaged by lack of resources, where they live, or the school they go to. As someone who has been involved in Scottish education for many years, I have looked on in despair at the failures of our systems, and political leadership, who have professed a search for equity, and the ‘closing of gaps’ ever since our First Minister was appointed in 2014 , and quickly stated, “I want to be judged on what we achieve in education.” Alma Harris and Michelle Jones published their book, System Recall: Leading for Equity and Excellence in Education in 2019. In this they argued that education systems across the globe have inequities built into them, that make it almost impossible to close those gaps, and what is required is a resetting of our education systems to address the inequities they perpetuate, before any talk of achieving excellence in those systems can happen.

I believe that political and system leaders, in many systems, have let down learners, parents and communities in their failure to grasp some of the inequities prevalent in our school systems. The inequalities built into our exam structures being one of these. The exhortation to school leaders and teachers to keep ‘closing gaps’ in education, whilst presiding over an exam structure that needed to maintain those gaps, “to preserve its credibility,” is another. However, a blame game helps no one, leading to yet more political spats, at the continuing expense of those the rhetoric says we are all trying to help, our learners. Everyone should be judged on what they do, not what they say they will do. What is clear to myself and others is that the status quo, with regards to our approach to assessing and examining our learners, is no longer sustainable, or desirable.

The question now is, what to do? Change has to happen in the examination procedures, systems and organisations we currently have in place. But, what change? Professor Brian Boyd has already proposed some changes in his article already on this site, which is a great start. In my experience, any meaningful change only happens through an open and honest exploration of the issues, and possible solutions, by everyone impacted by the changes we seek. Imposition of a ‘solution’ by the person or people with the largest power base is doomed to failure. We need consensus, and to get that we need time, and dialogue to happen. This is why I am supporting the aims of and the people who are trying to stimulate such debate. I am heartened by the different voices who are more than willing to contribute to this, and that the search is on for views and experiences from other systems, in other countries, not just at home. At a time when the UK is getting more isolationist, we in education have to maintain an opposite approach.

Some initial thoughts from me:

Assessment is crucial to teachers and learners. Teachers have always used a range of assessments, formal and informal, to help them thoroughly understand where learners are in their learning. Since the publication of Inside The Black Box by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in 1998, teachers have better understood assessment for all purposes, as well as the difference between summative and formative approaches. The majority of teachers have a whole raft of assessment information on learners, and it is true that no one knows learners and their learning better than the teachers who work with them every day. Why then do politicians and sections of the media display so little trust in teacher assessments, moderated by their schools or centres, as evidenced by recent pronouncements around Higher, A Level, GCSE and BTech results? This was most typically exemplified by Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education (in England) appearing on national TV this week and stating that, if we didn’t have exams, “you’ll have had some schools, for example, who’ll have literally put in every child as either an A or an A* or a B.” This is not only insulting to the integrity of the profession, it also displays a level of ignorance about what actually happens in schools across the country, including Scotland. We have to understand that there are ideological, political, commercial and sociological factors all at play, that all seek to preserve the status quo at all costs, and which wish to downplay the unfairness and inaccuracies built into current systems. COVID-19, and the changes that we have had to make as a result, have exposed inequities built into the algorithms used by different Governments and exam authorities, and how they have done so for many years. To carry on as normal is not only not an option, in my view, it would be immoral and a betrayal of those most disadvantaged by the system as it is.

Many teachers, school leaders and academics have written about the profound changes that have already been made, and which should be made, in our schools and our education systems as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions. Harris and Jones, in a recent paper, talk about how school leadership has to change and respond to the new conditions we are experiencing. But we should not underestimate the desire of many to maintain that status quo, possibly because they fear a loss of power or the impacts on them of profound change. It should be clear that our examination and certification of learners has to change. The question is, what should we change it to, and how?

To decide that, we need to spread the net of consultation far and wide, including all sectors, and all members of the education community, including learners and parents. It is easy for those in primary education to think that exams and assessment in secondary schools have little to do with them, when in fact their connection is a profound one. Recently the push down of the demand for the exam tail to wag the education dog has been growing at speed in some areas. It is easy for some to conclude that exams are the be all and end all of the schooling process, and that everything should be geared with this in mind. The development of joint sector campuses, for example, can be a vehicle for pushing this agenda further down the educational experience than it already is, and is something we need to think carefully about. The struggle to include and maintain a play-based approach in early years of primary is a continuous battle with those who believe a more formal and academic education should begin earlier, as they feel this will help exam results later!

It should not be for educationalists alone to decide what the future of assessment and examinations should look like, but it is important that all parties do listen to the expertise and advice of the profession, then mix this with their own thoughts and ideas, so that we arrive at a system that is better than the one we already have in place. A system driven by the needs of all learners, not those of the system, structure or algorithm. When systems are driven by data and pre-programmed design features, it becomes very easy to lose sight of the individual lives that are situated at each data point. Why should any learner be disadvantaged because of their personal circumstances, outwith their control, or because of where they happen to live? It seems to me that it is not much of a system worth fighting for, when it deliberately disadvantages some learners to maintain its own credibility. I can accept that issues that have been historically built into education systems across the world, what is not acceptable is doing nothing about these when they have been laid bare for all to see.

So, the dialogue has begun, and I welcome it, and hope to contribute in some small way. This post is a first contribution from me, and I would welcome feedback and thoughts about this, or any other blogs or posts on the website. I also look forward to seeing and hearing contributions from parents and learners.

Together we can achieve more.

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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