The government has recently published the Rapid Review of National Qualifications Experience 2020
. The report, by Professor Mark Priestley and colleagues at the University of Stirling, is a thorough review of the available evidence and seeks to incorporate comments from a range of interested parties in Scottish education.
The authors emphasise throughout that the circumstances of 2020 were exceptional and resulted in many complex problems which had to be resolved in a very short timescale. Nevertheless, in reading the entire report, the impression is given of a system beset by communication problems at many levels and of an awarding body (the SQA) reluctant to consider alternatives to its own approach. This is not to suggest that there was any bad faith on the part of the SQA, but the report notes: 'One of the core issues emerging from this review is the apparent focus on the primacy of preserving the previous years' distributions'. That is, in spite of the exceptional circumstances, the SQA continued to do what it always does, which is to 'normalise' results to conform to the pattern of previous years.
Consideration of the methods used by the SQA takes up a large proportion of the report but the apparent unwillingness of the SQA to release full data sets somewhat hampers the analysis (although, in fairness, it would have been difficult to examine such data in detail given the timeframe of the review). But it does give force to recommendation eight of the report, that there should be independent research into the Alternative Certification Model used by the SQA in 2020.
Another feature which emerges clearly from the report is that young people should be far more involved in matters which relate to their future. This is easy to say and difficult to deliver but it is to be hoped that recommendation seven of the report will be followed up with action. The report also comments on the need for transparency so that procedures are understood by those affected. In this context, it is interesting to note that out of 17 position papers submitted to the review, only six have been published by the bodies concerned. Clearly, there is still some way to go on transparency.
Moving away from the remit of the review, which was tightly drawn to the particular situation of assessment in 2020, what is noticeable is that none of the parties question the existing paradigm, that we must have national assessments. But why do we have examinations? What is their relevance to further study or jobs? There is a case to be made for some sort of assessment as an indicator of further study − and indeed, the present system of Highers was originally designed as the gateway to university.
But is it the job of schools to effectively select careers on the basis of an academic assessment? Surely we want more? Yes, but jobs are important, so what do employers want? Of course, literacy and numeracy (more on that later), but many surveys have shown that among other personal qualities, employers want people who are adaptable, who can work productively in teams, and who can contribute to product or service improvement.
I do not think that a Nat 5 in my own subject, physics, provides much information in that regard. So I welcome the decision following recommendation one (although for somewhat different reasons) that there should be no Nat 5 examinations in 2021. We can only hope that out of this mess (which is more 'cock-up' than conspiracy) there will be serious discussion about the outcomes of general schooling. What might inform such a discussion? Let's go back in time.
In Flexible grouping and the Secondary School Curriculum in Education for Democracy
(1970, Penguin), Charity James states that: 'We have to recognise that we are an exploratory, creative, problem-solving species, whose best and most assured statements are necessarily contingent, speculative and partial. Today's facts, like today's norms, may well be tomorrow's errors. Knowledge is an activity, not a commodity. On the other hand, information, which is a commodity, is no longer a scarce one. It follows, therefore, both from the true nature of knowledge and from the present overwhelming quantity of information, that children should spend little time memorising facts. Rather, they should learn to scan and evaluate complex data. Again, the attempt to separate thinking from feeling has been a disastrous failure; it is the whole person who learns and acts. From this, two changes follow, apparently disparate but closely interconnected.
'The first is that the expressive and creative arts become central to the curriculum rather than outlets for feeling only and so in some way inferior to the hard core of academic learning. But beyond this, the importance of the child's involvement in this work comes to be acknowledged. It is not true that provided you learn it does not matter how you feel about what and how you learn, since in large measure it is those feelings which determine what kind of person you become.'
Working in an era when Penguin thought it worthwhile to publish many books about the future of education, Charity James, at the time director of the Curriculum Laboratory at Goldsmiths' College, gives an outline of what should guide the future secondary curriculum. It seems that we have come no further, 50 years on from the publication of this article, in addressing the essential issues she highlights.
One problem is that we have no completely satisfactory theory of curriculum. There have been many attempts, from those based on what children have to know for adult life, to those which are required by a theory of the nature of knowledge. But the knowledge that children require to function as adults in a democratic society is changing rapidly. In the epistemological debates of philosophers, we have a clear divide between those who believe in an external knowable real world and those who argue for knowledge as something subjective which is socially and historically constructed.
In Scotland, we still have the detritus of the Munn Report
(1977), which attempted to apply the philosophical opinions of Paul Hirst, who characterised knowledge as consisting of some seven completely independent different ways of knowing. The clustering of subjects in today's choice sheets is the residue of this idea that everybody needs
to know something about everything. I highlight the word 'needs' as a danger signal, for this is yet another of these slippery terms which bedevil educational discussion.
What are the things which students 'need' to know? Once embarked on a career, it becomes much easier to specify what one needs to know, but who can know what 14-year-old students need to know in their lifetime? At least the Munn curriculum had an overall logic to it (even if misguided), which is more than can be said for the present Curriculum for Excellence, which has every appearance of being designed by a committee, consisting of a series of fine words with no obvious theoretical link between them.
Many curriculum models have been proposed. These may be consistent within their own internal logic but ultimately reflect different value judgements about the nature of education. We are unlikely to find a single comprehensive curriculum scheme which will satisfy everyone. In this context, an alternative approach may be to consider a small number of key principles which replace the current three Rs of Remember, Regurgitate and Regress, and which can be incorporated into any scheme.
I suggest these are the three Cs:
, as without it there is no impetus to learn;
, as without it there is only passive uniformity;
, as without it there is only credulity.
Anyone who has participated in an active primary classroom knows how curious young children are. It is the young child who asks, 'What is electricity?', not the older child who is too busy finishing the day's worksheet. What happens to curiosity when primary children make the transition to secondary? It's sit down, don't move around and we need to start on a course which may, or may not, interest you but which has to be completed. Perhaps an exaggeration − but maybe not so far from the truth.
And what of creativity? The usual creative areas of art, music, drama and dance have been very largely edged out by the 'hard' subjects and need to be reinstated. But here we need to stress that all subjects can provide opportunities for creative work, not just the usual 'creative' subjects.
Now, more than ever before, we need to introduce criticality into every aspect of the school's work. We live in an age of false information and increasing surveillance. It seems as if, by their use of modern media platforms, today's youth are sleepwalking into a society manipulated by the large technology companies. Of course, developing criticality means that young people will also wish to question the schooling system which treats them in a regimented way much as we treat high-security prisoners.
Many schools now preface their brochures with mission or vision statements. Most of these are pretty worthless. 'We will ensure that each pupil reaches their full potential' (how would we ever know?), 'We aim for the highest possible standards' (it's unlikely that a school would aim for the lowest possible standards).
Some years ago, when working for the then Scottish Office Industry Department, I visited a small rural primary school in the far north of the country. Here were no grandiose claims in the brochure, but simply, 'When they leave, we want pupils to have happy memories of our school'. This takes us back to Charity James and her comments on the way we feel about what and how we learn. If we could incorporate Curiosity
in whatever curriculum we follow, then perhaps students would have happy memories and not leave school, as many do now, alienated from further learning.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University