Covid: Cancellation of Scotland's National 5 exams raises a question: do they really matter? – Cameron Wyllie

I confess I was in a very grumpy mood as I settled to watch the Deputy First Minister’s statement about the SQA exams in 2021 on Wednesday.

Tuesday, 13th October 2020, 4:45 pm
Even in normal times, exams tend to involve more social distancing that in classrooms (Picture: David Jones/PA Wire)
Even in normal times, exams tend to involve more social distancing that in classrooms (Picture: David Jones/PA Wire)

This was not the fault of Mr Swinney but rather that of his boss, who, like a zealous deputy head had taken her red pen to my appointments diary – goodbye dinner, goodbye lunch, goodbye a drink with an old friend. Then I watched the DFM and I was filled with gratitude: glad I’m not a teacher, glad I’m not a parent and glad I’m not in S4 in a Scottish School.

To be fair, I thought he came out of it well, clearly well on top of his brief, and certainly looking better than most of those asking him questions – Daniel Johnson and Liz Smith being the exceptions.

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We had Ross Greer, his own Highers presumably still fresh in his mind, apparently wanting to abandon the whole exam caboodle, and Iain Gray, most concerned that young people should have the right of appeal against their school’s estimates, thus not showing much faith in the nation’s teachers.

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National 5 exams cancelled for pupils in 2021 as Scottish Government respond to exam results review

Mr Swinney, working mainly from the report of Professor Mark Priestley of the University of Stirling, had certainly been doing his homework; it’s clear there’s been a lot of consultation, including with "experts in the design of awarding systems”, a profession which I was, up to that point, unaware existed.

Presumably such experts have been hurriedly recruited following this summer’s disaster – the nasty algorithm and the necessary U-turn. Mr Swinney once again self-flagellated as he promised there would be no return to that dark hole.

Relief about Highers

Education Secretary John Swinney has called off this academic year's National 5 exams as the coronavirus outbreak continues (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/pool)

So Professor Priestley’s headline recommendation – after 35 pages examining, very reasonably, the shortcomings of the 2020 exams – is that there should be no diet of National 5 exams next year. It is “simply too big a risk to take. It would not be fair” being Mr Swinney’s words.

To be honest, I don’t think too many people will be very bothered about that. They will simply be very relieved indeed that the Highers and Advanced Highers will return to normal; teachers and their students will also be pleased that the exam diet is being delayed by a fortnight to allow for extra teaching time – though that, of course, could have happened even if the National 5’s were being examined as normal too.

So, instead of National 5 exams, grades will be awarded by school estimates based on validated assessments plus the "development of a nationally recognised, fully transparent and proportionate system for moderation of centre [school and college] based assessment”.

In the fine print of the report, Prof Priestley points to four complex and technical aspects necessary for the success of such a moderation model. I can’t imagine teachers in Scotland will be holding their collective breath for a look at that.

With the best professional will in the world, it isn’t really possible to believe that unfiltered teacher estimates are going to be a level national playing field, so I just hope that some "experts in the design of national moderation systems” are getting their skates on.

Aren’t exams socially distant anyway?

Still, though, why cancel the exams now, in early October? I come from a view that the 2020 exams shouldn’t have been cancelled, but I accept that it was a very difficult call and that time was short. But next year? May is seven months away, and I am unconvinced by the analysis that schools can’t ready young people for exams in parallel with preparing the estimate track (while the ‘experts’ beaver away at the National Moderation System), in the eventuality that Covid restrictions really do necessitate curtailing physical exams.

Also, I don’t find in the report, or in Mr Swinney’s statement, any evidence of time spent thinking about ways to make exams safe. Aren’t exams quite socially distanced events anyway? How about using some of the large empty spaces in Scotland – churches and their halls, social clubs, maybe even cinemas, concert halls, theatres, and having exams there, carefully sanitised, socially distanced and professionally invigilated, in situations where schools lack capacity?

Surely our schools are full of pupils in classrooms – so why would exams be so much of a risk, particularly when there’s so much time to think the issues through and get them right? Basically National 5 exams have been sacrificed on the altar of the Highers. Now if those are the options that’s the right choice, but I am not convinced a choice had to be made.

Future of National 5 exams in doubt

Really this boils down to the question of whether National 5 exams really matter. Well, certainly if I had my choice, lots of our young people would bypass them and proceed straight on to two-year Higher courses, potentially enabling them to sit more subjects at that level at the end of S5.

N5’s do matter, however, to the 25 per cent of pupils for whom they form the highest level of exam achievement and no matter what lengths are gone to, there’s nothing quite the same as the experience of sitting an external exam and getting a result for it, an experience which these young people will not now have while at school.

Similarly, of course, it means that that year group will not have any experience of external exams when they do their Highers and that’s a bad moment for exam nerves to descend on an unpractised candidate.

Last week, a senior teacher suggested to me that this might be the start of getting rid of National 5, at least in terms of the end examinations. I wonder. Would anyone like a bet that there won’t be a National 5 exam diet in 2022?

Cameron Wyllie writes a blog called A House in Joppa

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