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Exams are failing our Students

Nicola Biggerstaff – 11th August 2022

This week our young people faced what could potentially be the most nerve-wracking day of their lives: results day. This year, it was announced that the pass rate was down in comparison to the years 2020 and 2021, in which the pandemic meant that results were primarily based on teacher assessment, but was up in comparison to the last in-person assessments taken in 2019. The Scottish Government will spin this as a victory, that our education system is fixed, and we can now go back to the way things were. But we cannot. Our young people are traumatised, and standards are falling despite appearances. How do we fix this?

This week I spoke with Mr C – a secondary teacher in the central belt – about some issues being highlighted by this years’ results. He starts with a correction: these most recent sets of results simply are not comparable with the assessments of the pandemic years. They were conducted under vastly different conditions, in which students were undoubtedly more anxious than previous years, with both the weight of the world on their shoulders and the weight of a bank of knowledge they’ve been trying to cram into their heads.

He reminds us that the majority of this year’s cohort have never sat a formal exam. This, he explains, will undoubtedly have an impact on their ability to prepare as well as their overall performance:

            Our… pupils lost motivation towards the end… They weren’t ready. Pupils who have gone through two years of disruption were never going to be ready. I hate to use the word, but they don’t have the resilience. They were never going to do as well as we thought they might.

I ponder on this for a while: why should a teenager have to be resilient? Surely, if these last two years have taught us anything (pardon the pun), it’s that our young people are as resilient as they’re ever going to be? They no longer see the point in light of experiencing the most intense disruption to their lives they’re likely to ever endure, of course they’re not going to stay motivated. It’s the most basic human fight-or-flight response: they are fearful of what could possibly come along next to throw their entire lives off kilter, rendering any current effort pointless, and they are working as hard as they possibly can under the circumstances. Their brains are instinctively telling them that memorising names, dates, places, quotes and formulas is inherently pointless in the face of death by virus and are carrying on regardless.

Yet, that still doesn’t seem like enough for the increasingly impossible standards placed on them by an out of touch, dying examination system. We say it’s dying off, Mr C reminds us that the upcoming reforms will just lead to a rehashed, similarly structured, SQA ‘with massive glasses and a fancy hat on’. This is not a one-off either; Mr C predicts a ‘legacy of 3-4 more years’ in which students reaching examination age will be similarly hardwired this way. By this time these bogus reforms will have been fully implemented, with no consideration taken for these students who will still be unfit for formal examination.

The concept of formal examination does not reflect the skills and abilities needed to be successful in life, by which I mean being able to live a fulfilling existence, whatever form that may take for the individual, rather than by social or economic status, or any other quantifiable measures of ‘success’. Our schools are not preparing them for life, and these years of disruption have only highlighted this: did you learn a new skill during lockdown? Did you learn to bake or crochet, learn a new instrument? I personally chose to refresh my Spanish via a language learning app, but I already have a not unreasonable grade in Higher Spanish, so on paper I should’ve been reasonably proficient. And yet I still found myself starting at Level 1. Why did we have to learn (or relearn) these skills as adults over the internet? We are not taught to learn skills in a manner which motivates us to constantly improve throughout our lives. In short, we are not taught to enjoy learning, we are taught to prepare for exams.

The sector is not going to change overnight, and this has become disappointingly apparent during the sector’s Covid recovery. We were told that the pressures on teachers and students were both increasing and unsustainable, and the government did not listen. Even taking into account the more generous grades of the pandemic years, the attainment gap has widened once again, despite their assurances that students would receive ‘fair’ results. At this point I return to my chat with Mr C:

            How have they made results fairer and more generous? There has been no communication on how they’ve done this, and they also didn’t communicate when they used the postcode lottery algorithm.

Alarm bells are ringing now, I ask him if there’s anything he has noticed that could support fairer grading? He reassures me that, actually, his subject’s examination paper itself was indeed fair, with:

            Some questions designed to challenge more able pupils, as there normally are, but worded fairly using well-revised knowledge.

I breathe a sigh of relief, but I shouldn’t have to. Surely this should be the standard? Every year we see pushback from disgruntled students running to the tabloid media saying their exam was too difficult, which should often be taken with a pinch of salt given the risk of both a lack of preparedness from students and an anti-government media agenda. While this criticism is sometimes warranted, only some students will achieve results when pushed. Diamonds are made under pressure, but bread dough needs rest to rise. Some pupils will engage cognitively and achieve under the current system, some will break down and cry in their maths exam (no idea who that could possibly be referring to…).

Coupled with a cost of living crisis forcing teachers to consider strike action for fairer pay and conditions on their return to schools this month, and we have a system which simply does not work for anyone involved. So what’s really going to change here? 

Here at Common Weal, we are delighted that our working group for schools will be up and running within the next few weeks, looking to tackle these issues and provide fairer solutions for closing the attainment gap, reducing teacher workload, and structuring an education system which gives our young people the essential life skills for a more fulfilled learning experience to last a lifetime. We are always on the lookout for those in the teaching sector who would wish to contribute. For more details, please feel free to contact me at nicola@common.scot

4 thoughts on “Exams are failing our Students”

  1. Campbell Anderson

    Hi Nicola, having chatted to my 15 year old granddaughter who will be sitting her National 5s next year, I am totally behind you. Let’s construct a fairer, more accurate and more motivating alternative.

  2. florian albert

    ‘The concept of formal examination does not reflect the skills and abilities needed to be successful in life.’

    Sorry, I disagree totally.

    Recently I was treated by two doctors, a GP and a consultant. The first gave me medication which alleviated my condition; the second altered the medication with further positive results. These two would have reached medical school as a result of success in formal examinations. They treated me successfully, first and foremost, because they had acquired knowledge – rather than skills.
    That is only one example. I could easily give others from different disciplines.

    Not incidentally, the Education Committee at the Holyrood Parliament produced a scathing report in the failures of those in charge of Scotland’s schools. This got very little publicity.

  3. A couple of points:
    Firstly, exam pass rates have not dropped this year – they have been dropped. There is a difference. Each year decisions are taken where to set pass marks and grade boundaries so as to achieve the pass rate the SQA thinks is appropriate. This year they felt it appropriate for the pass rates to be lower so set grade boundaries/pass rates accordingly. Let us not fall into the trap of believing that pass rates are based on how well pupils do or how hard pupils and their teachers work – it is all decided by the SQA. (Of course, those who work harder than average will be more likely to be those that find themselves over the line once the line is drawn.)
    Secondly, there will always be a poverty related attainment gap for as long as some young people are disadvantaged by their home circumstances. Poverty doesn’t just affect opportunities to pay for private tutoring – it affects motivation, access to study space, cultural poverty, necessity to take a part-time job etc. Schools can not compensate for all these disadvantages so pupils will continue to be disadvantaged by home circumstances…which will be reflected in final assessments.
    Finally, let’s be careful with exam reform. If we don’t have a credible way of demonstrating that pupils have acquired necessary skills and knowledge, all we will do is shift the burden on to employers, further/higher education institutions to have to conduct their own assessments.

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