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.”
“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.”
“Ongoing assessments … allow you to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”
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.”
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!”
“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.”
“Studying legal studies is benefiting me greatly as I want to study law when I leave school.”
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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