Note to Teacher

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.



5 thoughts on “Note to Teacher

  1. Bill,

    Another interesting post. As you say, everyone seems to agree on this, but nothing seems to change. I suspect the only answer is to do away with exams altogether. I still believe in the need for nationally certificated assessment, carried out and assessed internally with some light external moderation, but there are many better ways of doing this than a formal exam.

    I could go on (and on), but you get the drift.



  2. Yes Gordon,
    A subject dear to both our hearts, and one which we have discussed many times. For me, it’s about demonstrating that we really are serious about developing the four capacities in young people, and if that’s the case any assessment needs to reflect that. HMIE and local authority inspections/reports/audits/reviews also need to reflect it big time.


  3. Think we’ll do all we can in SQA to lift these mind forged manacles. Assessment isn’t like this in other sectors

    Isn’t this what CfE is all about ?

    I think all agencies have a responsibility to ensure that education is engaging and encouraging and responsible debate will help – we are on the road to major changes – Would be good to hear and see new ways of delivering the 4 capacities and the outcomes that can be used English in blogs like this to show teachers there are other ways than teaching a 5 year SG/higher/Int1/int2 – god help their pupils – does this really happen ?

    As an ex English and Communications teacher – I still wonder how much freedom we give learners in selection of texts – that was bug bear of mine – they got what was in the cupboard in Secondary School – not what was likely to turn them on.

    Freedom is a state of mind

  4. Hi Joe,
    Thanks for the comment – you make quite a few valid and interesting points. I accept absolutely that SQA are making a determined effort to change the nature of national qualifications, and I have no problem with that whatsoever, although I’m not sure that everyone has fully processed the notion of national assessments which are not about dozens or even hundreds of young folk sitting in an assembly hall writing at the same time. What I am suggesting is (I hope) more radical than that, which is that we create a climate where the development of the three capacities other than “successful learners” predominates for as long as possible.

  5. I completely agree! I was never good at tests and never will be, but ask me to write an essay or report and I’ll ace it. I do know what I need to know, it’s just a matter of pressure, and I feel like it’s not “fair” (although, what is fair) that grades were changed because of the pressure final testings put on me and other students.

    This is one of the many reasons I was homeschooled for several years during high school. I hate to admit to the fact that I did my school work at home, since everyone is so judgemental about this process, but I admire the fact that this type of schooling brings the focus off actual marks and allows students to actually LEARN what they are being taught. Although grades and doing well IS very important, it shouldn’t be the focus.

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