Reform Scotland

A Pupil’s perspective – Bruce McCall

This year’s Higher and Advanced Higher exams were cancelled on the 8th of December. Speaking in parliament, Education Secretary John Swinney said the reason for the cancellation was not concern about the risk of spreading Covid-19, but about the impact the virus has had on the consistency of the standard of education across the country.

Many students have had to isolate due to being in contact with or having the virus, and this has led to a significant dip in the quality of their schooling. In some cases, pupils had to isolate for the required two weeks on multiple occasions across the first term of the school year, from August to December. As a result, children across Scotland are at drastically different stages of the same course.

Following the cancellation there was no immediate plan for how pupils would be assessed through the coming months, which meant a period of uncertainty and unease. Students were left without a clear idea of how they would be graded in the absence of exams.        No-one was at fault for this – it was unclear to everyone how the system would be able to gauge an accurate grade for pupils. This needed to be worked out.

The further lockdown in January prevented the opportunity to sit prelims in early 2021. Without these, with no final exams planned, and with lockdown meaning there would be a long wait until we got back into school, focus shifted to how schools might gather materials in order to grade pupils as accurately as possible. Courses were continued through online work and home learning during the January lockdown and into February, and examination boards eventually set out the forms of evidence required for grading and confirmed the  date when submissions would be needed by. This allowed teachers across the country to begin gathering the work and evidence to ensure their pupils were presented fairly.

Along with the cancellation of exams, another difficulty from the point of view of the student is the sudden changes to courses. Many of the subjects at Higher level have had specific areas cut to aid teachers and pupils whose progression has been halted or slowed due to lockdowns, isolation periods and contracting the virus. Inevitably, this raises the concern that we are not getting the full learning experience and knowledge needed for future years in education.

Coronavirus has affected the education system not only by preventing regular in-school teaching, but also by reducing exposure to the parts of schooling that go beyond learning. This includes the development of opinion, helped by a learning environment in which pupils engage in class discussions that progress their thought processes and force them both to challenge and defend views. This lack of classroom collaboration also denies the chance to learn life skills from teachers or other mentors.

However, this new form of continuous assessment is not all bad news. It has helped to identify possible ways of examining students that go beyond relying wholly on end-of-year exams. Some Higher courses may be better suited to continuous assessment across the whole year.

From experience over the past 12 months, continuous assessment gives students more opportunity to shape their submissions for grading. The amount of hard work they are willing to put into their coursework can clearly be seen by the assessor. It also allows exam boards to see a pupil’s progression through the course of the year. And it also arguably better prepares pupils for eventual progression to the requirements of the workplace.

It would not be correct to make coursework 100% of the final grade, but a new structure for grading that incorporates continual assessment as well as exams would seem to make sense and to offer a more accurate approach.  

Having missed just over four months of in-school learning since the first lockdown, it has been a huge challenge for everyone involved in the education system to provide children of all ages with a positive learning experience. As a pupil, the period has not been without its challenges, but in the end, we can only thank teachers and other authorities for their efforts to continue our education through these unprecedented times.  

Bruce McCall is a 16-year-old secondary school student in Edinburgh