Grown-ups should be ashamed of what school exams have become

Robin McAlpine

Of all the annual political circuses, the one that leaves the sourest taste in my mouth is exam results week. Yes it’s lovely to see all the excited pupils who got what they needed enthusiastic about the rest of their lives, but increasingly I find the exercise as a whole is oddly distasteful.

Why? Because this is a dual process – it’s teachers marking kids’ exams and it is politicians marking their own exams. Where they clash, a bunch of kids are harmed. And even where they don’t clash, the whole rigmarole is now a serious issue for the wellbeing of children. It is time we think again about exams.

First, what do I mean by politicians marking their own homework? This has kind of always been the case, but it is a process which became highly politicised from the moment former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced (back in 2016) that education (and in particular the ‘attainment gap’ between the wealthiest and poorest students) was her defining mission.

When a politician says they are making any given issue a defining matter on which they expect ultimately to be judged, more often bad things happen than good things, especially if the politician’s statement preceded the politicians thinking it through.

Because it is phenomenally difficult to close the attainment gap in a meaningful way, particularly if you limit yourself to schools policy. That’s because the differential attainment of children has much, much more to do with social conditions than anything the school does. Differential rates of attainment are the symptom of social failure, not the cause. It’s all about poverty.

So if you say you’re going to close the attainment gap, you need to be ready to undertake a serious and very large-scale programme of poverty reduction. That is to say you need to undertake major economic reform and invest heavily in housing, social work and policing (among other things). If you constrain yourself to education policy, you absolutely will fail.

The problem comes through the chain of control which politicians have over exam results. The idea that the process for aggregating results into a kind of single ‘national result’ (that can generate headlines like ‘pass rate up, attainment gap down’) is a purely technical matter was rather obliterated during the pandemic.

Those of us who worked in education were always aware of this (my time working for the universities was punctuated annually by the issuing of exam results, including the marking disaster of 2001 which required me to get a major briefing on how the system works), but the revelation that politicians were having discussions about exam result outcomes in the run up to issuing them rather gave the game away.

You can find out how it all works in more detail here, but basically every year there is a ‘normalisation’ process which alters the boundaries of what score you need to get in each subject to cross the threshold to the next grade (C to B, B to A). By adjusting the boundaries you can adjust the number of students getting each qualification.

And since you don’t do that until after the exam marking is in, you are specifically adjusting marking to achieve a given outcome. Nominally this outcome is technical – to ensure annual variations in the difficulty of exam questions doesn’t alter the broad pattern. But in reality if a politician wants to decide their own exam results, they can.

(The marking agency, the SQA, should technically tell the politician to beat it, but we know they don’t. That’s why when it was announced that the SQA would be abolished and replaced, it was clear that effectively no such thing would happen. It’s a cosy deal – politicians protect staff, staff protect politicians.)

During the pandemic, no-one could pretend any more. There were no exam results to work on so the process became a process of ‘normalisation based on teacher assessment’. Which is to say it was all but made up – and when it didn’t produce the ‘right’ results it was made up again in a different way.

At this point I need to be very clear what I mean by ‘made up’. I’m not saying that teacher assessment is flawed – quite the contrary. I mean that politicised normalisation of those assessments is. A teacher says ‘this is how good my pupil is’ and then a politician effectively says ‘nope, they’ve been too generous and this doesn’t look credible’ or ‘they been too tough and my constituents will be pissed off’. Both of these are judgement calls.

The result is that the big majority of pupils really do get the grades they deserve. It’s the marginal cases who suffer. It’s the ones on either side of a grade threshold who are either pushed up or pushed down who are impacted, and those who are pushed down can be impacted for the rest of their lives.

I knew what last year’s exam results would look like before they were announced, and I knew it again this year. I would have placed a money bet on this year’s result being ‘the sweet spot of not as good as during the pandemic when we abandoned exams and didn’t want to penalise the kids for it, but better than the last time we had exams in 2019’. Because that’s the story I’d expect a politician to want to tell.

To no surprise on my part, that’s exactly what we got. Did the politicians direct this, did officials simply deliver what they thought the politicians want or is this the result we’d have got anyway? I don’t know. That’s the point.

The problem with all of this is that it shows the problem with all of this – exams are now ‘political tokens’ as much as they are ‘pupil attainment assessments’. Mid-market tabloids like the Mail and the Express think good news is their readers’ grandchildren (mostly comparatively affluent) maintaining their advantage in getting university places.

Meanwhile liberal newspapers or those just wanting to attack the government will report failures in closing the attainment gap. And then politicians love photogenic pupils and are always trying to link themselves personally to the positive outcomes of pupils. Exam results are highly political. In fact they’re intensely political.

The result of all of this is that the weight of exams seems to have grown and grown since I was at school. Yes we sat exam results, but many fewer of us went to university and it just didn’t feel like that dog-eat-dog situation we have just now where not getting into university is seen as a disaster for kids.

So we sat exams with the nerves that come from exams, but I can’t remember any of my fellow pupils collapsing under the pressure and needing mental health support because of exam pressure. (I think I can recall one panic attack, but the girl was supported, calmed down and completed the exam, and since she was in my class the following year, it seems to work out).

This has now changed, partly because of the nature of the labour market, partly because of the massive changes in higher education, and partly because of the sheer negative impact of the politicisation of exams.

I absolutely abhor this. I’m all for pupils learning to deal with a bit of stress based on them facing mild, manageable stress during their school careers – but intense stress creates cortisol, the stress hormone which is known to permanently damage children’s brains. Overly-stressed kids grow up to become slightly damaged adults who have a horrible memory of a time that is supposed to be a childhood.

There are easy solutions to this (other countries have found them) – but there are quite a few possible solutions, from how we handle exams to who has to sit them and when right onwards to getting rid of them altogether. All of these are entirely viable

But as I discovered as our Education Group developed the work for Sorted, educationalists who want the same outcomes can have quite strongly different views about how to get there. Worse, all of them dread more educational reorganisation (given the pigs’ ear that has been made of Curriculum for Excellence). Most people want change, but we don’t have a change agenda yet (other than that set out in Sorted and bits and pieces of work by others).

Whatever the outcome, we need to take this problem seriously because it is having a negative impact on entire generations of young people who are being forced into a kind of unnecessary gladiatorial combat with each other for the sake of newspaper editors and politicians.

Having your Geography Higher result come out as a C when you were hoping for a B should always be a disappointment for a child – but it should just never be a disaster. Approaching exams should just not create a spike in the need for acute mental health support in schools. Somehow we have manufactured a system with these as component parts.

As adults – parents, grandparents, journalists, politicians and educationalists – we should be ashamed of ourselves about this. They’re children; it is our job to look after them, not fuck them up for our short-term convenience.

7 thoughts on “Grown-ups should be ashamed of what school exams have become”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    As someone who worked for 39 years in schools and prepared young people for examinations, and as a parent, I agree with almost all of this. The ‘almost’ is because of the personal animus against the former FM, which imbues it with a bitter taste.

    Education has been ‘political’ since compulsory education was introduced in Scotland in 1872, and, arguably, since John Knox’s ‘school in every parish’. However, the overt and intense politicisation we have now really began in the 1970s when comprehensive secondary schools became the norm throughout the UK. The reactionaries very quickly produced a series of ‘Black Papers’ on education, the content of which can be summed up as ‘keep the scum in their place’. By most measures, comprehensive schools have transformed the lives of huge numbers of our population and have demonstrated that, when offered a genuinely broad and balanced curriculum – in which the arts and crafts and physical education have their equal places – then most of those who were rejected by ‘selection’ can flourish in a number of ways.

    Not only was the legislation intended to restrict the curriculum, it was also to curtail the creativity of teachers. The Scottish Educationist Laurence Stenhouse identified the teacher as ‘an intelligent enquirer into her or his own practice’. That is someone who was constructively self critical in collaboration with peers and who could evolve different approaches to pedagogy. The ‘target-setting’ agenda, greatly expanded under new Labour was not about ‘continuous improvement but about straitjacketing teachers into a narrow range of teaching approaches and school organisation.

    I was present when Mr Peter Peacock, the then Labour Cabinet Secretary for Education, launched ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. It was a genuinely transformative vision intended to liberate the creativity of teachers and to loosen the shackles which the examination system was imposing on them. Sadly, it was rather quickly hijacked by the various vested interests – HMI, teacher unions, colleges of education, etc – and shaped into something which suited them. The principles underlying CfE remain valid.

    I agree entirely with your view that we cannot expect schools alone to ‘close the attainment gap’ (which is, I believe, a worthy aim). We need to tackle the issues of poverty, poor housing, health provision, the lack of agency people have over their own lives. But, with regard to education specifically, we need to invest far more heavily in pre-school (i.e. from birth) and early years and this entails for more support for parents and particularly mammies from when they become pregnant until their youngest children have started primary school (at 5 or 6 or 7). Fathers now play a much greater role in child rearing compared to our own fathers, who because of long hours and overtime and often heavy manual work could not devote sufficient time to child rearing. I knew, without doubt, that my father loved me, but he was unable to spend much time with me. So, we need to support parents by ensuring fewer working hours with no loss of income or career progression and we need to assist grandparents and other family members to contribute to child rearing. Ageing codgers like myself enjoy engaging with young people.

    So, your anger against the ‘Exam Results Day’ circus as presented by the media. They gorged themselves on the systems failure in 2001 – the students and teachers did not fail – for the next ten years; for BBC Scotland reporters the failure was something to exult, since most of them and their high heid yins were privately educated and educated their children in private schools.

    Thanks again.

    1. florian albert

      Some more points;

      (1) The ‘Black Papers’ were about English schools. Irrelevant in discussing Robin McAlpine’s article.

      (2) CfE was ‘intended to liberate the creativity of teachers.’ Is there any evidence that parents want this to happen ? Or that this ‘liberation’ would benefit pupils ?

      (3) ‘most of those who were rejected by ‘selection’ can flourish in a number of ways’. But, all too frequently, not in the employment market, as the eagerness of employers to prefer Polish and Spanish immigrants has shown.

      (4) CfE failed – not because of vested interests – but because of its own complexity. Dr (now Professor) Joseph Priestley of Stirling University put it bluntly, saying that teachers did not know what they were supposed to be teaching. This disaster was ignored by the BBC, The Herald and The Scotsman. Only the Sunday Post held the SNP government to account. The failure of CfE was predictable given the track record of those at the top of Scottish Education.

      (5) Peter Peacock was part of Jack McConnell’s government. This was marketing Scotland – absurdly – as the ‘Best Small Country in the World’. The attainment gap was deeply entrenched already, though it did not fit in with McConnell’s fantasy.

  2. Good article. The way that results day is reported makes me cringe every year. The BBC will run a headline such as ‘Pass rates fall…’ or ‘Pass rates increase…’, rather than a more truthful headline such as ‘SQA reduces pass rates…’ or ‘SQA increases pass rates…’ For some reason the BBC wants to give the impression that pass rates result from how well students have done in the exams, rather than reporting the truth that the SQA decides on the pass rates it thinks are appropriate and then sets grade boundaries for each exam to get that outcome.
    The real story within exam results should be the differences in performance between the sexes and between the most and least affluent. The SQA should be held accountable for using means of assessment that favour girls over boys (continuous assessment usually favours girls whereas boys are more willing to cram for high stakes final exams), and for using forms of assessment that favours students who can be helped by educated parents or private tutors, such as folio work that can be completed at home.

  3. florian albert

    A few comments;

    (1) ‘They’re children, it is our job to look after them. not f*** them up.’

    Those pupils sitting external exams will be aged 16 to 18 mainly. Thousands will be able to vote in elections in Scotland. Try telling them that they are children and see what reaction you get.

    (2) What shines through Robin McAlpine’s article is his counsel of despair. ‘It is all about poverty.’ We need to invest heavily in ‘social work and policing’ If things are as bad as that, how did they reach such a point ? In the ’50s and 60s, the notion of police in schools was seen as madness only happening in the US; social workers were very few and far between.

    (3) ‘the pig’s ear that has been made of Curriculum for Excellence’

    This is a vastly more important issue than the fiascos involving the building of the Holyrood Parliament and Edinburgh’s trams. Yet there has been no clamour for a public enquiry.
    The schooling system works quite well for the middle class. It always has. The rest do not matter.

    (4) ‘The big majority of pupils do get the results they deserve.’

    i e; good results in Bearsden, Morningside and Dunblane; poor results in Drumchapel, Niddrie and Northfield. What Alex Massie and others call educational apartheid. This has been in plain sight for decades.

    (5) (‘It’s a cosy deal – politicians protect staff, staff protect politicians.”)

    It is not cosy. It is corrupt. Why won’t Robin McAlpine say this ?

    (6) The BBC’s coverage of Scottish schooling is dreadful. It always has been. Again, it is a class issue. Who cares if education in the schemes is failing ?

    1. “The schooling system works quite well for the middle class”
      This should not be a surprise – most so-called ‘middle class’ are ‘middle-class’ because the benefited from education and they really see and promote the value of education to their children, ensuring their children attend school regularly, attending parent meetings, checking that homework is completed etc. Meanwhile, many non-middle class parents had a poorer experience of education themselves, may even be hostile towards schools and education, do not ensure their children attend school regularly, do not particularly care about school reports and parent nights etc.
      The real poverty behind the poverty related attainment gap is cultural poverty. Improving the financial position of the most disadvantaged will not, in itself close the poverty related attainment gap as it will not address the issue of cultural poverty.

      1. florian albert

        I agree that cultural poverty is a major problem. However, if schools are incapable of – at least partly – overcoming it,
        our present unequal society will remain unchanged in the next four decades as it has in the last four.

  4. F I MacIllFhinnein

    The schooling system cemented in place in 1872 was a scheme to engineer what were viewed with suspicion as non-compliant (in those days, usually rural, often non-English speaking) communities into accepting English (the language) and English rule as their inescapable fate. It was largely successful. (Think of Ukraine being taken over by Russia, and you’ll get the idea.) Schools became compliant suppliers of their most able pupils to the advancement of the Empire.

    Exam results do not (largely) indicate or constrain the careers of the adults that emerge from them. Perhaps exams are necessary, but more as a challenge to yoing people than as an effective assessment of potential. The biggest provider of tertiary education in Scotland is, I believe, the Open University. It only requires of students that they be willing and that they pay – no previous educational attainments. Perhaps there is a message there.

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