The fault in our system: suggestions for assessing english

by Sammy McHugh

2020 has been a challenging year, and in many ways the exam furore has been the tin lid for those of us in education. The government and the SQA had the unenviable task of making sure the 2020 results were delivered smoothly in the midst of a national crisis, but what they actually did was expose the massive fault line running right through our system. This has sparked a desire by many to discuss the merits of that system and to question its place in an egalitarian 21st century Scotland.

We all know how subjective English can be: it’s never been perfect and I’m certainly not trying to claim that, but over the years the English course assessment has become increasingly narrow and arguably, more cynical. The system as it stands today – a Portfolio of two essays, a Spoken Language assessment, an unseen close reading of non-fiction and an unseen Critical Reading paper – leaves little room for teacher or pupil choice, and individuality is often the first thing to be sacrificed.

I know that English teachers have a range of views about what works and what doesn’t, and I’m hoping that by putting my head above the parapet it might help trigger a much needed grass-roots discussion about what the best way forward might be. So here goes:

Talking and listening to be assessed throughout the year

I find it soul destroying to spend so much time on it on the BGE only for it to be a quick, ‘get it out of the way’ further up the school. I know it’s time consuming but it absolutely can be woven into the teaching of language and literature – it does not need to be stand-alone or tacked on as an afterthought. I do think that other subjects need to play more of a part in talking and listening and many do: there is excellent practice going on in areas like social subjects and other departments across the country, but there has never been a serious national attempt to capture that as part of ongoing Literacy assessment.

Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation to be kept more or less the same, but we need to focus on the reading and analysis of non-fiction much more and much earlier on

Close Reading (can we just call it that please?) is sometimes used as a ‘filler’ lesson if teachers are off and, as it’s often done as stand-alone lessons at the best of times, pupils find it hard to make the connection between all of the different skills and question types. Teachers tend to focus on literary non-fiction for more extended studies and maybe pupils pick up on their discomfort with teaching ‘straight’ non-fiction. The Language option is a much-ignored part of the exam paper at the moment and I think that’s because many teachers don’t feel confident teaching it. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest CPD issues facing English teachers today – but as we rarely get the time or encouragement to develop our own portfolio of knowledge and skills post-ITE, the problem rumbles on.

Drop the mandatory Scottish set text

I understand the idea behind the Scottish text component but by insisting that set texts are adhered to, it means that it is the books in the cupboard that are used rather than the best ones for the job. English teachers in Scotland have always taught Scottish texts but they used to have the freedom to choose what was right for them and their classes. I love MacCaig and Duffy as much as the next person, but six poems? Just take a look at social media around the exams to see what the pupils think about it all.

Critical Essay to be completed as part of coursework rather than in an exam and in open-book conditions

In an open book assessment, pupils have the chance to use the knowledge and skills they have accumulated over the course of the year and apply them to the challenge at hand – is that not a better marker of someone’s learning? We could have true intertextual analysis here too with teachers looking at texts by the same authors or looking at texts thematically. Because of the demands of the Scottish text, we have a reduction in the other literature studied for part two of the Critical Reading paper. Teachers have become quite savvy about this and often departments teach two Scottish texts to give their pupils the best shot in the exam. I understand that but how does this narrow focus help to celebrate the wonderfully diverse range of texts that are out there? We don’t have to drop Textual Analysis from summative assessment either: we could go back to the olden days of the Practical Criticism and give pupils a chance to use their skills in a more independent, transferrable way. What a joy it would be to set that paper – staff could insert such a selection of interesting and lesser-taught texts into the curriculum this way.

Personal Reading to be given a higher status in the Senior Phase

I know the Personal Study/RPR was not always done well but we really need to look at this again. It is such a marker of a pupil’s development for them to be able to analyse a text using prior learning, and it’s done with great success at Advanced Higher. Could we not look at how to bring this in again at Higher at least?  I also think that more time needs to be devoted to reading for enjoyment in general. It’s a cop-out these days to say they should be doing it at home. Of course they should, but often they are not. Do we just continue to turn a blind-eye to this when we know how important reading is for the development of all other English skills? Allow pupils reading weeks during the year, where they can read without the fear of being made to do the dreaded book review at the end of it.

Writing to be assessed in class rather than in a Portfolio that is sent away

Get them writing little and often on a range of weird and wonderful topics – really challenge their thinking and let them showcase their talents. It could be done under timed conditions in class – the way it used to be – and while we’re at it, we could do away with the pain of including two independent sources of information – one of which will inevitably be Wikipedia. You would also then neutralise the threat of plagiarism and the ‘helping’ with drafts from parents and tutors. I would also like to see pupils being given the chance to write creatively in these assessments; this is a skill that is being squeezed every year which is a shame as that is what attracts many to the subject in the first place. What about bringing back the unseen Report where pupils have to synthesise ideas from a range of open-book sources and make recommendations in their conclusion? What’s the point of promoting rich tasks and higher order thinking in the BGE if we just abandon it all the minute they reach S4?


I appreciate that if a lot of the above is to be carried out by teachers in class, we’d need time to plan and organise everything. The time we currently get is just not enough; Education Scotland and the authorities want us to complete rigorous assessment and moderation activities but when are teachers that are on 27/33 supposed to do this? Alongside any revised assessment structure, there must be a serious reduction in class contact time to allow all teachers to plan for teaching and learning as well as assessment and moderation. The balance just now is all wrong; development time is always seen as an add-on and it should be given equal weighting with teaching time. I feel it’s very similar to the way we spend a fraction of the teaching time going over the learning and next steps – we do it really quickly and almost apologetically as there is so much of the ‘course’ to get through. This has to change and if it doesn’t, any new measures will inevitably fail.

Another important aspect is partnerships: we are still not looking at education in a holistic way. We compartmentalise our work and live in our own echo chambers. I want to have regular planning meetings with primary staff because I want to know where the children are coming from. I also want more communication with those in further and higher education so that I can see where the pupils are going when they leave us. We must all be on the same side with this instead of pitting our wits against one another. I know this is a complex issue and it won’t be solved by educators having a few twilight meetings: it needs radical, original thinking and the courage to take a leap into uncharted territory.

Some may dismiss my suggestions as pie in the sky: my ideas are unrealistic and there is no money, time, or goodwill to do it in today’s educational climate. However, my point remains unchanged: the fault in our system has been exposed and we cannot unsee it. Are we going to hastily cover it up again and allow it to continue, or are we going to put the best interests of the pupils of this country at the forefront, and finally do something about it?

Thanks for reading.

Sammy McHugh is an “English teacher and general do-gooder” working in a Scottish secondary school. She is the host for @EnglishScotland and blogs at

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2 thoughts on “The fault in our system: suggestions for assessing english”

  1. Sammy, a really thought-provoking read. I’d be in agreement with each of your points and couldn’t agree more that the fault has been exposed and we must use this opportunity to move forward rather than just pretend it’s not there and move on.
    I’m not a fan of the SST either (Though I love the texts) and feel the politicisation of Education on both sides of the border (I taught in England for 22 years) has meant that a lot of our students don’t get the opportunity To experience some wonderful literature from around the globe.
    On the time/money/development debate, it’s all about getting the priorities right. If there’s a will, there’s a way and we have to prioritise the right things rather than throwing good money after bad.
    A cracking read. Thanks for taking the time to write it and make me think!

  2. Also an English teacher and agree with SO much here. I did GCSEs at school and we were allowed to take our annotated / highlighted texts in with us. Testing how many quotations a pupil can remember is a nonsense, we should be looking at what they DO with their quotations in their essays, which they will do better if they don’t have to waste learning, revision and exam time memorizing!

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