By Harriet Sweatman, student, winner of the 2019 Scottish Review Young Writer of the Year
Around November 2018, I wrote a piece about school life for a writing competition in the Scottish Review after encouragement from my favourite English teacher. I wasn’t expecting anything. I mostly used writing to process all the emotions I had about another year of exams and the upcoming end of my time in the familiar yet stifling school bubble. A few months later it was announced that I had won, and I became the Scottish Schools Young Writer of the Year 2019. It was really surprising and exciting that my writing had reached so many people but it has always felt strange having my very personal and emotional essay read by hundreds and turned into a political statement. As I write now, I am almost finished my first year at university, and have had a lot of time to reflect on the education system I was a part of until an abrupt end in March 2020. I feel like I am ready to offer some real opinions, now that I am older and hopefully wiser.
First of all, as someone who has been educated within the Curriculum for Excellence for almost its entire run, I could not explain to you what it aims to do. The key phrases it is built on have only ever felt like buzzwords with no real or applicable purpose within a classroom. The school year in senior phase is built around a bullet point list of topics and facts that every teacher must follow, with no time to deviate. I am a Classics student and have always loved History, but I was forced to spend half my year at National 5 memorising repetitive paragraph structures, because in many exams your wording matters more than the content. This killed my passion for the subject, and I dropped the class at the end of the year. This Curriculum does not encourage “confident individuals” or “effective contributors” who use their knowledge and creativity to develop new arguments. It teaches students that the only way to achieve is to memorise in the short term and regurgitate in the “correct” order. This curriculum needs to change to become more flexible, fit to assess and teach young people rather than robots.
Secondly, we need to address some aspects of Broad General Education and funding. If Scotland wants to have pupils that can compete with those taking GCSE in England, then we need to allow students to take more subjects in third and fourth year up to National 5. Where my English friends and family members took ten GCSEs, I was expected to count myself lucky to go to a school that allowed me to take seven National 5s, even though this would leave me with fewer qualifications. Education has become a post code lottery and there are many schools in Scotland where even fewer subjects are taken thanks to a lack of funding and resources. Some only allow 5 National 5s, with Advanced Highers out of the question. These students are being let down, and this will only exacerbate the inequality they may already be facing. BGE also claims to allow all students to take whatever level of a subject they are ready for but this is a lie. While it is true that students can defer taking an exam for a year, I have only ever known one student be allowed to move ahead with exams early, even though there were others who could excel if they were given the chance. This leaves us with a system that caters to mediocrity, with the top held back, the struggling left waiting, and middle ignored. When I applied for university I was competing with many English students and felt immediately inadequate because they had so much more experience. Having the opportunity to try out new interests and have a chance to excel is very important for young people trying to figure out their place in an ever changing world. It is vital that funding for education is increased, especially to disadvantaged areas, and the BGE system needs to allow pupils to take more subjects, and take them when they are ready, before they narrow down and specialise so that everyone can explore all their options.
Thirdly, exams themselves need to change. Exams have only become longer, making it almost impossible to focus for the allotted time. These exams make up to 80% of a student’s grade, meaning that the result of an entire year’s worth of learning is decided on one day. The only thing this has taught me is how to write by hand quickly. This system clearly does not reflect the world of work those students will soon be entering. Advanced Higher English was my favourite subject I ever studied because the exam was only worth 40% of my grade. The rest of the year was spent writing about my favourite author for a dissertation and getting support to try creative writing for my portfolio. It was the only subject I took in sixth year that made me feel motivated and gave me a certain degree of freedom. I understand the importance of exams, but would argue that we should be putting more of a focus onto projects, allowing students time and resources to research their own interests and learn things they otherwise wouldn’t. Most projects I did in school were written up under exam conditions anyway, so there would still be a level of equality across all students. This would also be much less stressful, spread the work out over the year, encourage more independence and growth, and better reflect higher education systems and workplaces. It seems like the only logical move for a curriculum that aims to let students become individuals.
Lastly, if we want to know the best changes to make to education, we need to talk to pupils! I was lucky to go to a good school with dedicated, encouraging teachers and leave with top grades, but my time was spent feeling stressed about trying to achieve marking scheme perfection and suffocating my own interests in favour of endless structure. There will be many who weren’t so lucky, and will have even more to say. Writing this now should only be the beginning of the conversation. Do surveys, petitions, panels, whatever it takes to make those in charge hear the voices of these young people. They are the ones who feel the consequences of our education system on a daily basis, and it is their lives we are trying to change for the better. Despite everything, these past few years have proven that this generation is one of action, and if the government wants to actually make the best changes, the youth of today won’t hesitate to tell you how.