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Walking the Tightrope on Education

School over the last year would’ve been bittersweet.

Wandering about with a face covering would have its benefits… noubt worse than the nerves of building up the courage to ask the person you fancy if they want to go to the pictures at the weekend. Aye, kids can hide behind a digital platform like Instagram to message them or, in my day, MSN… but if you’re waking up on Friday morning and Mount Vesuvius has just appeared right in the centre of your coupon, there’s absolutely no running away from that. If you were a spotty wee dweeb like mysel, the face-covering era might’ve been a Godsend.

But then how would you play ‘Pitchy’ at break time if you’re needing to be 2 metres away from each other? If you’re struggling to mind, Pitchy’s that game where everyone stands a certain distance from the wall and flicks a penny as close to it as possible. The participant that manages to get it closest to the wall takes the lot. If an impartial judgement wasn’t hard enough back in the day, this will make it near enough impossible. This must’ve caused some mayhem in playgrounds across Scotland.

Then again, being able to watch the Scotland game in class would’ve been quality. It's moments like that which make your week. Aye we inevitably got beat off the Czech Republic, but the real win comes from getting that same feeling when it’s nearing the end of term and the teacher brings this felly through:


What hasny changed is the paranoia around exam results day. Mad Andy’s in his last year and decided to have a perty the night before cos his auld man’s cashing in his faither’s day getaway gift and his parents have boosted for the weekend. You wake up with a piercing headache, somehow managing to get onto the email through the glare of your phone screen that’s near enough blinding you to get the results up. It could’ve been anything, but you’re lay there thinkin ‘och sack it that’ll do.’

What would’ve made it mare bitter than sweet this year… alongside the numerous voices bouncing off the walls in your brain, be it from a family member or that teacher that did yer nut in, (albeit questionably) saying ‘should’ve stuck in at school wee man,’ ‘your life depends on this,’ kids will be up at daft o’clock on Tuesday morning worrying about being graded on an examination process completely unknown to them.

Patter aside, some kids haven’t been happy with the way exams have been during the pandemic. Second to Covid, it dominated conversation before the Parliament’s summer recess.

So what is the script with education right now? Why is there seen to be so many problems? I did a little digging on this.

The best way to understand it is in the context of the situation in 2020. Last year, grades were based on what’s called ‘Teacher’s professional judgement’ – the teacher has a deek at what the pupil got for their prelim and, coupled with a review of how the pupil is progressing, makes a call basically on a hunch of what the pupil’s grade should be. Not an ideal way to generate a grade but because of the immediate lockdown, teachers were limited in the amount of evidence they could gather.

Then came along the ‘postcode lottery.’ An algorithm put in place by the SQA to try and clamp down on any cloudy judgements made by teachers… it would look at the school you attend and then use the data they have on grades achieved in the previous 3-5 years to alter pupils’ scores accordingly. A decision (eventually U-turned by education secretary John Swinney) that seen pupils take to the streets.

Douglas Ross has been quick to make comparisons of what he calls the “exam grade disaster” of last year and, again, what he deems, “another year of grave chaos and confusion.”

So what has been different this year? Has it been the same carry on?

At the tail end of last year, the SQA scrapped the Nat 5 programme and brought in the ACM (Alternative Certification Model) which looked to base people’s grades on ‘demonstrated attainment.’ Instead of teachers having a dash at what they think their pupil is worth grade wise, it allowed students to put forward pieces of evidence collected throughout the year to put towards their final grade. This essentially shifts the ‘I think’ to ‘I know.’

This is all supplemented by a national quality assurance sample, which is basically a check that the teachers' assessment judgement is in line with the national standard. It is an individual case study of evidence that a teacher put forward as a certain grade, which is then sent to the SQA who then approve or disapprove and tell them what needs to be worked on.

Some might be wondering what all the faff is about… many will remember being somewhat socially distanced at exams anyway. Why has this all changed?

First off, you’ve had a significant decline in the availability of invigilators. Cos this is largely a 65+ age group you had mass resignations, loads ae them shielding or even unwilling to come into schools cos of Covid.

You’ve also got a mixed bag across the country in terms of access to wifi, devices and other technology. Not only because we were in and out of lockdown, what about kids that were needing to self-isolate or shield? What about the impact on a kid’s mental health that lockdown had on them? Kids with autism, for example, appeared to be much happier at home. We needed a system that was sound and flexible for everyone and whatever their situation may be because of covid; an imbalance which prompted the Scottish Government to allow pupils with severe disruption to learning to submit evidence as late as September.

The SQA will also not come in and change your score this year. No algorithm is being used, no previous data is determining any scores, yer grade is yer grade. The bone of contention lies elsewhere this year… as the UNCRC (United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child) is newly incorporated into Scots Law, school pupils will be reinstated with the right to appeal their grade. Opposition to the Scottish Government argued this should’ve been a no-detriment appeal (ie cannot go down in grade). The reality, however, is that these grades can go up or down and this is determined by a subject specialist at the SQA. Although this follows the same procedure as previous systems of appeals and downgrading is relatively uncommon, the Opposition feels that the hardships pupils have faced with Covid make it unfair for a score to be potentially downgraded. The Scottish Government will point to the extra time given to pupils with difficult circumstances and the potential for teachers giving grades that are inconsistent with the SQA standard to suggest otherwise.

There are also issues with the locality of decision-making. Evidence that is used at one end of the country may be drastically different to evidence at the other end and achieve the same score. It must be under “exam conditions,” but that could be a sit-in exam in Firhill (Edinburgh) and a bit of coursework in Forehill (Aberdeen). One could cut off an A at 72% and the other might say nah surely that’s 68%. Or if it happened to be the same bit of coursework, it's unclear how much weight should be given to it in your final grade. In other words, Firhill could say aye that’s worth half yer grade and Forehill say naw that’s only a third.

On the one hand, we needed a system that suited everyone in their circumstances and on the other a ‘national standard’ has become harder to implement… It’s a difficult balancing act.

The backlash from last year and Parliamentary sessions before summer makes finding a balance reminiscent of a high-wire walk in a scene from James Marsh’s ‘Man on Wire.’

Exam results are out on Tuesday 10th of August.



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