Inequality is entrenched in our education system, and the new ‘appeals’ process is just the tip of a much more challenging iceberg

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have, unsurprisingly, declared the new approach to exam appeals a success: the number of appeals has plummeted from 66’000 in 2013 to 8500 this year; successful appeals have dropped to just 2000 from 32’000 last year; and the costs to the (taxpayer funded) SQA have been slashed (having reached an eye-watering £750’000 in 2013).

On the face of it this all sounds fantastic for Scottish education – there has clearly been a massive reduction in what some term ‘speculative appeals’, ensuring a much more rigorous examination system and, if you choose to spin it this way, representing very high confidence levels within the teaching profession. What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, as it happens, because the reality is very different. Despite the toned-down descriptions of this change, the new system marks a radical and retrograde step from an organisation still struggling with the implementation of the new National qualifications.

Despite the understated descriptions of this change, the new system marks a radical and retrograde step…

The new system means that the SQA will ‘remark’ a paper, but as a consequence the award for the student in question could go up as well as down. As a result this option is incredibly risky for many students, especially those whose marks may be close to the grade boundaries or whose university offers are conditional upon certain specific grades.

The new process has also raised a rather troubling question: can a situation where up to 25% of exam papers are not marked correctly ever be judged a success? Previously, successful appeals meant that a student had under-performed on the day of the exam, whereas it is the performance of the SQA markers which will now come under scrutiny.

The previous incarnation of the appeals system allowed teachers to submit evidence to the SQA which, we believed, demonstrated that a student’s result in an examination was not a fair reflection of their overall performance and ability – that facility has now entirely disappeared. In its place is a system which has been ostensibly designed to discourage students and schools from challenging a grade based on the professional judgement of teachers: schools are now charged for unsuccessful appeals, a move which automatically benefits private schools and, conceivably, any parent able and willing to pay the £39.75 fee (bear in mind that a full-time minimum-wage job pays just over £200 a week).

The most damaging aspect of this change, however, is the lack of an evidence-based system for anything other than consideration of “exceptional circumstances”. This means that nine months of excellent work can be ruined by a single poor performance – you would feel justifiably aggrieved to be treated in such a manner by your employers, perhaps arguing that one bad day should not been seen as reflective of your overall ability to do your job, yet some teenagers will now have their hard work written off in precisely the same manner. Put simply, it no longer matters how good you actually are – all that counts is your ability to sit the exam. A pile of rigorous evidence as high as the pupil in question counts for nothing, even if it does clearly demonstrate that a student’s ability far exceeds their performance on one, single, solitary day.

Yes, a system of remarking rather than actual appeals will reduce the number of ‘speculative’ submissions, but the obvious price is a system which focuses relentlessly upon primacy of the ‘final exam’ and that is, unequivocally, not a good thing for Scottish young people or our country as a whole.

A greater focus on the assembly-hall style examination simply magnifies Scotland’s inequality problem by reinforcing a system which gives an enormous advantage to well-off families. Schools in the most affluent areas tend to face fewer social and behavioural problems and are therefore often able to focus more on preparation for the exams. Families with the finances to allow it are able to hire private tutors, leaving those who can’t afford the £25-an-hour rates (which, for 5 Highers, could cost more £2500 over an academic year) instantly disadvantaged.

Families with the finances to allow it are able to hire private tutors, leaving those who can’t afford the £25-an-hour rates (which, for 5 Highers, could cost more £2500 over an academic year) instantly disadvantaged.

And of course all of this ignores the very legitimate questions around whether our whole approach to examinations and qualifications is fit for purpose? This is always going to be a controversial subject, but the time has come to look at our methodology and ask ourselves, honestly, whether it is an effective preparation for the world into which our young people will venture?

We cling desperately to the current examination approach for little reason other than the difficulty of developing something better, but these hard choices must not be shirked any longer. Right now our methods primarily assess a student’s ability to sit an exam, not their actual knowledge, skills and potential. Defenders of the status-quo will doubtless argue that traditional examinations maintain the ‘rigour’ that the system requires, but the problem here is that the current system is, in many ways, not rigorous at all. Yes, a single bad day can destroy a year (or more) of excellence, but conversely one lucky day – or a general talent for passing exams in their current form – can also cover up a pupil’s lack of effort, dedication and true ability. How, exactly, does a system which values one good performance over a year of consistent excellence ensure a ‘rigorous’ education system?

How, exactly, does a system which values one good performance over a year of consistent excellence ensure a ‘rigorous’ education system?

The time has come for us to face up to what so many of us have known for so long: the existing assessment system is not fit for a 21st Century purpose. The end-of-year exam as we know (and experienced) it is a relic from a world which no longer exists, and we do our young people a terrible disservice every time we refuse to acknowledge and address that fact.

The need for a new approach which assesses a student’s true ability whilst also reflecting the reality of the modern world seems self-evident, but it is also clear that a certification system where the very structure entrenches income-based educational inequality is entirely unacceptable (and that a remediation system which exacerbates this problem is unequivocally not the answer). What we need is the courage to challenge the status-quo, no matter how difficult that conversation is for all involved. We need a system where the talent, work-ethic and potential of an individual is genuinely represented. We need to measure the true ability of our young people, not the ability of their teachers and tutors to coach them for a predictable examination. We need, above all, to eradicate the shameful link between a student’s results and their parents’ bank balance.

 

This article has also been published on http://thislittleearth.wordpress.com and http://mrmcenaney.wordpress.com

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About James McEnaney

Lecturer, Writer and Journalist

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