A recent Scotsman article has provoked me to reflect on some of the author’s points. The author makes the point that we are subjected to an annual and predictable ritual as the exam envelopes drop onto doormats at this time of year – or, as is becoming increasingly familiar, the ‘ping’ of a text or email arrival to a student’s smartphone signalling the arrival of the results. The ritual is one of higher pass rates followed by a chorus of deprecation that points out the falling standards that make such high grades and eternal upward progress possible, even if it is fractional.
Unfortunately, there is no real argument behind the article. The author says, ‘Try telling a young person who is one A, B or C away from getting the place they dreamed of that the exams are too easy‘. This isn’t an argument, however. Pupils are not in the position to judge whether the exams are rigorous enough. It is the entire point of any exam system to set knowledge and skills at such a level that not only is effort required to attain, but that the knowledge and skills are of a good standard culturally i.e. we might expect that other people at the same age around the world or even in history will have attained a similar level. There are pupils who sweat for Intermediate 1 and pupils who breeze through Higher: pupils are not a reliable source for data.
The author of the article goes onto to state, ‘I am tired of reading that by dumbing down the qualifications, our young people will not be able to compete on a world stage and that Scotland is falling behind in a global market. Our education system can and does compete internationally, and it will continue to do so. CfE has many supporters at home and abroad and it is a well thought-out philosophy which should – given the chance – enhance the education and opportunities of all our young people.’ There are a few points here.
First of all, who says our young people are competing, and who says they’re not? And how many that do compete, if any, come from the state sector? The only evidence we have had in recent years is that Scotland, educationally, has slipped. Not a disaster perhaps, but not something to dismiss either. As an education-ravenous Asia continues to produce excellent engineers, scientists and mathematicians, we can only assume that in a global marketplace, the average Scot will be squeezed. We may compete internationally, yet are we successfully competing? On the evidence, we do ok. Some of these reasons lie outwith the education system; some are within it. However, educationally, we are not world-beater. And that pains me to say it.
Yet what I really take issue with is the last part of the paragraph. CfE is not a well-thought out education philosophy. That’s just not true. The new National 5 exams in English are nothing other than Intermediate 2 re-arranged. Given that teachers must prepare pupils for exams in the years preceding the actual examination, the exam dictates much of the coursework. Few teachers can afford to take 10 weeks out of the school year at any stage to do a really worthwhile project. Fewer have the time to co-ordinate a project amongst departments. Fewer still would be given the time by a Headteacher who needs staff to cover other staff to focus on providing depth to a project, rather than the hour a day, four days a week model.
CfE is nebulae enclosed in a fog seen through a glaucoma. There is nothing that a teacher was doing yesterday that cannot fit into the CfE outcomes. There is little that a teacher could do tomorrow that would not fit into CfE outcomes. Yes, it does give teachers greater freedom to think, nonetheless, that freedom has to be an hour lesson that builds to an exam and for a class that may go to another teacher who will wonder why they each have a paper maiche poem instead of a folder that has creative, discursive, summative and critical writing in it, well, in English at least. The school structure and the exam system dictate how the CfE outcomes will be interpreted. There’s far less, far less, freedom than the proponents of CfE think.
The author of the article notes that there is ‘a postcode lottery of school standards‘. I’m not sure I would agree so much with that statement if the meaning is that the educational standards of a school are lower in different areas. Few schools do not produce pupils that achieve the top grades, therefore, nearly all schools can teach to the requisite standard. However, if the meaning is that there are different standards in different schools because some pupils come from a background where education is valued; parents are supportive; there’s a clear idea of a future and success provides pleasure and pride, as opposed to poor parents’ night attendance; lack of support for homework or anything else; and success threatens peer and possibly family relationships, then definitely that is true. Teachers cannot teach at a level much above their classes in these schools and progress is slow.
This reveals a very troublesome implication for CfE. So vague are the CfE outcomes and competencies that it is quite possible that a school may slowly drift from a good standard to a far inferior one with no clear idea of what is required. I’ll give an example. One of the CfE outcomes is ‘I can write sentences’. But what does this mean? Must the pupil write two simple correct sentences to achieve this outcome? Or should they know about the subject, the predicate, the importance of a main clause and be able to demonstrate that by naming the parts of a sentence and their function in the greater whole? The former is easily performed by a primary school child and the latter is real test of rigorous, coherent teaching and learning at secondary level. Conceivably, one school could choose either of these with many lying somewhere in-between these polarities with varying degrees of satisfaction.
The SQA have become alert to this issue which is why they have hired teachers to act as SQA Nominees and help to maintain standards across the country. With National 4 being marked by the schools themselves, drift along with a subconscious desire to do the best for pupils, might mean that there is a loosening of the cut off standard to pass. This would undermine CfE entirely. Yet similar things have happened before with internal assessment for other examinations. Even with external marking, the SQA always has a job on its hands maintaining standards across experienced markers. There is real challenge to have a consistency across all schools.
Ironically, doesn’t this raise an interesting paradox? To maintain standards, teachers will have to be trained then sent out from the central exam authority to make clear the standard. This standard will dictate the curriculum. The curriculum which was going to be so free and creative will now be more controlled than ever before, in practice. Exactly like Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, the schools will be expected to have methodologies and standards that mean a certain level is attained, and if it is not being attained, the pupils will fail and serious questions will have to be asked. It has the feel of something not being thought-out then having its fallacies compensated for as we go along.
CfE is here to stay. It’s not a bad thing. SQA standard bearers going into schools, I think, is a good thing, but if we are going to make any progress in improving education we have to be honest about CfE. It’s not new. It won’t give greater ‘freedom’. And, on current evidence, it won’t raise standards. The exam models so far provided give no inclination of that. So far CfE has been ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. It’s time the debate moved on to how to raise standards and put the signified back into ‘excellence’.