Teaching (without a final exam): National progression awards in law

by Paul Hamilton

Let’s start with a bit of context. I have been a secondary school history teacher for eleven years. In that time, I have taught my fair share of pupils, taking them through Standard Grade, Intermediate, National, Higher and Advanced Higher examinations; but 2020/21 is shaping up to be a bit different …

In what sometimes feels like a previous life, prior to being a teacher, I studied for and graduated with an LLB (Hons) in Law. For various reasons, I never went on to pursue a career in law, but that does not mean I simply left the subject (or the interest) behind. Now, in session 2020/21, after years of wanting to, I am delivering the Level 6 NPA qualification in Legal Studies to S6 pupils at Clydebank High School, in partnership with the School of Law at the University of Glasgow.

So, what is the course all about? It is a National Progression Award (NPA) that, in terms of SCQF points, is comparable with a Higher level qualification. It consists of two mandatory units, Introduction to Scots Law and Crime & Society. But perhaps the most notable feature of the course is that it does not have a final examination; instead, there is ongoing assessment throughout the academic year.

As a teacher, I cannot stress enough just how liberating it feels to deliver a course which is not predominantly reliant upon a high-stakes final examination. Instead, the qualification achieved (or not achieved) by pupils is based upon their academic achievements across the entire school year. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

“Since there is no final exam it gives us a chance to prove ourselves throughout the year.”

Mia Moohan (S6 pupil)

“A continuous assessment process is much more representative of what a student can do … there’s a lot to be said for allowing students to be assessed in smaller, less pressurised and time-constrained ways, rather than hanging their fate on how they perform on one single exam on one single day.”

Holly McKenna (LLM Research Student)

“Ongoing assessments … allow you to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”

Rachael Purvis (Law graduate)

I would argue not that we move away from final examinations but, instead, that we think seriously about their weighting. Is it right for an entire year’s worth of study to rely so crucially upon a pupil’s performance on the day of their final examination? I don’t think so, and before anyone suggests that “it did us no harm,” I don’t accept that either! This is not about exams no longer being fit for purpose; my view is that they have never been fit for purpose. (I have thrown the cat amongst the pigeons now, haven’t I?)

Imagine a world where SQA courses were assessed on an ongoing basis, where the majority of subject content was assessed, where it wasn’t a lucky-bag as to the questions being asked on the day of the final exam and where – even if a pupil was having a ‘difficult day’ – there wasn’t a need to consider ‘special circumstances’. My idea of utopia, or sheer madness? You decide.

Further to all this, the school I teach at is situated within an area classed by the Scottish Government as being of ‘high deprivation’. The school is not what I would describe as an ‘exam factory’ (thank goodness, I say). Yet our pupils punch incredibly well. In all aspects of the curriculum, they perform as they should, are afforded the same learning and teaching experiences as their peers in the ‘leafy suburbs’, and in most instances progress towards what the government refers to as ‘positive destinations’. But that doesn’t mean the picture is a wholly pretty one …

“As someone who recently graduated with a law degree, having grown up in what is classed as an area of deprivation, my experience of studying law – particularly in the first year – left me with the sense that there is an inequity. Coming from an area classed as deprived, you may not have had the same contacts, experiences and opportunities as others.”

Morgan Henry (Law graduate and former Clydebank High School pupil)

How many of the young people I teach have had an experience of the law which wasn’t confrontational and was instead aspirational? How many of the young people I teach have had dealings with a police officer in a circumstance which wasn’t distressing or upsetting? How many of the young people I teach have felt that it would be possible for them to go on and study law at university? I could go on with these questions for some time …

“Law can seem scary and inaccessible … bridging the gap between high school (no experience) and university (thrown in at the deep end) is a very positive thing!”

Holly McKenna (LLM Research Student)

“Offering subjects such as Law [at school] is essential. Offering this as part of the curriculum will ignite a spark in young people who have, perhaps, never considered or felt capable enough to consider law as a career path.”

Ami-Jayne Hughes (Law graduate and paralegal with DAC Beachcroft)

“Studying legal studies is benefiting me greatly as I want to study law when I leave school.”

Bethany Provan (S6 pupil)

Offering NPAs such as Legal Studies is an opportunity for schools to think differently to, dare I say, start thinking a bit outside the box when it comes to curricular design, without even having to be radical.  The world is indeed spinning fast and schools have a job on their hands just trying to keep up (I know that) …

So, how am I wrapping this all up?  I certainly don’t pretend to have any solutions (just suggestions), and I am sure some of what I have said will attract a degree of criticism. But maybe that’s a good thing! Perhaps, as teachers, we have been too conformist for too long.  We know the young people we teach, we know our subjects and we know our schools …

If something is broken, let’s start fixing it!

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6 thoughts on “Teaching (without a final exam): National progression awards in law”

  1. Nicholas Moohan

    This method of continuous assessment removes the mentality of latter stage cramming and hoping for a great, on the day performance.
    My difficulty in mainstream education was falling behind and ultimately getting left behind. I achieved an A, 2 B’s and C at higher but couldn’t face any more of education by that stage.

    1. Gerard Carruthers

      Fair comment. But cramming isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. I remember things from School and University 30-40 years later that I ‘crammed’: it is one learning tool among many.

      We need a balance between continuous assessment and examinations: the latter too have skills and performative benefit as well as potential negatives (same with continuous assessment).

  2. Jacqui Williamson

    Pupils across the board have been wrongly awarded this year and it’s the stronger students that have been affected most with lower grades. The lower achieving students have been awarded higher marks than students who achieved higher marks than them in prelims, test etc across the year so how is this fair for this years students? We need a robust SQA qualification and a National Progression Award moving forward to be fair to all students from 2021

  3. As Education is evolving so too will exams, continuous assessment seems a fairer evaluation,of learning and skills there are a lot of factors which can make a final exam wrong for some pupils .It would also have meant in the present circumstances a fairer application of exam results for all pupils and not a postcode lottery .

  4. Legal studies as part of a school curriculum is an opportunity to go somewhere towards bridging the inequality of experience Morgan Henry mentions in her comments.

  5. A really inspiring piece showing what is already possible within the system. NPAs have been available for at least 10 years. When I was HT in a large secondary school we offered NPAs in Sports Development. They were really successful and allowed young people to progress on from their SG or Int2 or N5 Physical Education.
    Needless to say the Level 6 qualification as per SCQF Framework not equal parity with other Level 6 Higher courses.
    Until the system breaks away from “The Higher as Gold Standard” we will continue to have inbuilt inequity.

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