I was looking through an old notebook* the other day when I came across a couple of quotations which had slipped out of the ageing hard drive on top of my shoulders, but made the same impact when I read them again as they had when I first heard them straight from the horses’ mouths as it were. The first was from Anton Colella, the then Chief Executive of SQA, speaking at a Principal Assessors’ Conference in Edinburgh in March 2006, when he said, “SQA qualifications serve the curriculum, the curriculum does not serve qualifications.”
Just a few months before, in November 2005, Peter Peacock the Education Minister, spoke at the Association of Headteachers Annual Conference, telling delegates, “Assessment needs to reflect and support learning priorities. We need to assess what we teach and not teach what we are about to assess. We need to make sure that arrangement is right now and into the future.” He repeated the message in the same month to an International Conference, also in Edinburgh, telling the audience, “There is a danger that in Scotland, the exams system reaches down to year one in secondary and pulls pupils through a particular route rather than teachers being given more freedom to teach…..we’ve got to have further dialogue in Scotland about how we get the balance right.”
Four years on, and much “further dialogue” later, it seems that we are still, to a great extent, teaching what we are about to assess, and the exam system is still very much reaching down to year one in secondary. Why should that be the case? Have too many of our teachers lost the desire or the ability to have “the freedom to teach”? Are they too scared that someone in authority – HMIE? SQA? QIO? Headteacher? – is going to blame them for their “failures” rather than praise them for their successes? Whatever the reason, if we are to make any progress towards the transformational change that the majority of those in Scottish education appear to be looking for, that burden of exam results as the ultimate goal must be removed. Here’s a suggestion for starters. Let’s try a ban on any mention of formal exams at least until the end of S3, and make sure that all our systems of accountability reflect the seriousness with which we mean it.
* Notebook in this context refers not to an electronic device but to an old science notebook printed by Andrew Whyte & Son Ltd., Edinburgh. It is one of many notebooks I still scribble in, and they come in all shapes and sizes, some hardback and some with soft covers, lined and plain paper, spiral bound or with fine Italian leather. I use them most often for recording quotations and I have done for a very long time. If you haven’t already discovered it, TK Max is the best, and the cheapest, place to find them.