Highers cancelled: Education Secretary John Swinney needs to think again – Cameron Wyllie

It is no exaggeration to say that I was shocked when the Deputy First Minister announced that he had decided the Higher and Advanced Higher diet for 2021 should be cancelled, and replaced with grades awarded by teacher estimate.

Most pupils, parents and teachers would want Scotland's Higher exams to go ahead, says Cameron Wyllie (Picture: John Devlin)
Most pupils, parents and teachers would want Scotland's Higher exams to go ahead, says Cameron Wyllie (Picture: John Devlin)

Personally I was against cancelling the exams in 2020 but I accept that that was a tough call and there was a reasonable case for erring on the side of caution; this time, six months away from the summer diet of 2021 exams, it’s a mistake, pure and simple.

I think Mr Swinney is a fine, intelligent and compassionate individual, but he has been misled, and the effect of cancelling the exams will, I’m afraid, be precisely the opposite of what was intended which was – as I understand it – to make the outcome fairer for all pupils, but particularly for those young people who have been particularly disadvantaged by the effects of Covid and lockdown on Scottish education.

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Absolutely genuinely, I hope I am wrong, but my preference would be that he simply changes his mind – he’s done it before, when the great algorithm process went wrong last August, so he can do it again, and restore the faith of Scottish school students and their parents and teachers in his leadership and judgement.

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Why? Firstly, let’s just dispense with the safety issue; to be fair, Mr Swinney said that wasn’t central to his decision. Briefly though – young people are in school now; there are plenty of places to sit exams; exams are, broadly, socially-distanced anyway; S5 and S6 students will – in the main – be expected to sit exams anyway, in the form of prelims and other year-wide assessments.

And, of course, unless something has gone badly wrong, Covid will be much less of a threat by May because of the vaccine. So, in effect, there is no practical reason not to sit the exams as normal.

So on to ‘fairness’. The argument here is that some pupils – very often , but not always, those who come from the least wealthy backgrounds – have been badly disadvantaged by doing very little learning during lockdown.

OK, that is very likely true, and at some point in the future, I hope there’s a public inquiry into why it’s true. The Highers and Advanced Highers, however, are one-year courses, and the very vast majority of students have been back at school – quite rightly – since August, and I imagine that their teachers have been using every precious minute effectively.

Yes, some young people will have missed Higher work at the end of S4, but still, the very great majority of that work is done in S5. In some subjects – but not in all – the lack of work done in S4 (or S5 for the current S6) will, of course, be a problem, but that surely has to be true for any work – including ‘prelims’ – that will lead to the teacher estimated grades anyway.

So where are these teacher estimates to come from? They will require to be evidence-based – you can’t just give Johnny an ‘A’ in Higher Maths because you think he has the potential to get it; the teacher will have to have proof of ‘A’ quality work that Johnny has completed (and, preferably, work that he’s done in school under test conditions).

Anyone who has presented for Highers (I presented for Higher English for 27 years) knows that pupils rarely do worse than you think they will and, very often, with a good wind behind them on exam day, do better, often miraculously better.

Right now, my guess is that thousands of Scottish young people are panicking, both about indifferent work they’ve already had assessed this session – which may now count towards their final grade – or about their ‘prelims’ (not preliminary to anything at all now) which may form a really important basis for assessment.

We all know that many, many children (sorry, but boys in particular) can do drastically in their prelims and much, much better in May.

Then there is the pressure on teachers this will inevitably cause. I have said before that it is simply wrong for teachers to have the final say on pupils’ grades – of course, that’s fine in S1 and S2, but not when these grades have such a massive influence on the future trajectory of a young person’s life.

I predict a horrible period ahead for staff as parents, alert to this huge change in the way their children’s work is finally assessed, begin to bring pressure on teachers and senior managers of schools.

And – sigh – the most highly educated, the most confident, the most wealthy parents will be the ones who bring the most pressure with – no doubt – their legal representatives frequently in tow.

We know what the effect of this will be. The poverty-related attainment gap will widen; children in the most academic state schools and in private schools, some of them heavily tutored, will do well.

The least advantaged, no matter the support of their dedicated teachers, will not produce the evidence. Mr Swinney has – by accident – designed a less level playing field. And, if some kind of ‘algorithm’ is introduced again, in order to combat such injustice, it will really cause credibility issues in university entrance situations. Remember, exams in England are going ahead.

Once again, a politician has talked to the wrong people. I am sure the fine folk at Education Scotland and the EIS mean well, but most of them haven’t taught for years. Talk to pupils, talk to parents, talk to actual teachers in actual classrooms and I think the vast majority of them would want the exams to go ahead.

Please, Mr Swinney, think again.

Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, writes a blog called A House in Joppa

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