Failing Miserably

Your head pounds, the ticking of the clock louder with every passing second. Your wrist aches, the muscles tired from the immense strain they are under. Your forehead sweats, the sticky confines of your surroundings close in. Your future awaits, the panic takes hold.  

Sitting school exams for some is unpleasant. For others, it’s genuinely harrowing. In this most unpleasant and indeed harrowing of years, it’s time to rethink how we assess our students in Scotland. 

Coronavirus has changed public life immensely. For all the suffering and angst the pandemic has inflicted upon our society, there are silver linings to be found laced around even the darkest of clouds. From improved personal hygiene to a renewed sense of community, we may look back in years to come and find some solace in the positive changes made in the midst of a global crisis.

Education Secretary John Swinney announced earlier this month that Highers and Advanced Highers would join National 5s in being scrapped for 2021. While certainly a start, more has to be done. A complete overhaul of the exam system is now imperative. 

Lockdown has underlined, and even increased, our reliance on digital platforms. Technology has become ingrained in our culture, our workplaces, and our classrooms, yet in exams, technology is the enemy.  

Exams are a game of retention. Memorise, consolidate, regurgitate. Schools aim to send well-rounded pupils out into society, but when delivering their most important assessments, remove the tools they will use in their everyday life. 

Nowadays, effectively navigating the internet in order to find the necessary information is vital. With the world at our fingertips, the need to test a student’s ability to retain information has dissipated. 

Even a former headmaster of Eton called the current exam system “outdated” and “archaic”, noting that “little has changed from Victorian times.” When the figurehead of perhaps the most traditionalist institution in the UK is criticising anything for being too Victorian, something has gone wrong. 

Eton Mess; Former Eton Headmaster Tony Little slammed the current exam system back in 2014. (Photo Credit – Mani Babbar via Getty Images)

While our examinations may be stuck in the 19th century, our understanding of mental health thankfully is not. As a society, we appreciate the importance of emotional wellbeing, but where is this compassion when it comes to exams? 

Some will say it’s important that our youth deals with pressure, that they are not shielded from all adversity and then left to drown in the choppy waters of “the real world.” While that may be true, how does a one-off final test in a two-hour sitting on a Tuesday morning in May reflect “the real world”? Frankly, it doesn’t. 

Despite the Scottish Government making it their primary mission to eradicate the attainment gap, it is instead widening. As our politicians try and tear down the educational barriers in the way of our most deprived, our exam system allows the blockade to remain. 

Exam results are the sole factor shaping our school league tables, only succeeding in perpetuating classism and division, as opposed to providing meaningful insight into schools’ strengths and deficiencies. 

As someone who attended a school that routinely ranked in the bottom ten of these tables, I’ve seen first-hand the negative ramifications of obsessing over improving final exam results; Pupils left deflated as they’re told they can’t sit an exam in case their potential fail hampers the school’s ranking. Teachers left deflated as they militarily drill students to respond to commands, instead of providing true enlightenment. 

An alternative may sound idealistic, but Finland – a country that an independent Scotland would perhaps look to emulate – has proven it’s far more tangible than one might think. 

The country ranks within the worldwide top ten for literacy, mathematics, and science, all while forcing no final exams on its youth. Consistent assessment and more autonomy given to teachers to decide how best to cater for their class has left Finland with a happy and high-achieving student base. 

Although the first vaccine jabs have now been administered, many fear that we may never see true normality again. In the case of education, upending normality is the right thing to do.  

The biggest concern of students shouldn’t be that they are failing the system. The biggest concern of students should be that the system is failing them. 

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