What sex survey tells us about the warped priorities in Scottish education
IN the midst of the first lockdown beginning in March 2020, formal exams were cancelled as Covid ran riot and brought normal life to a standstill.
Back then, most of us probably assumed it was a one-off, yet — nearly two years on — there’s a chance that exams will be scrapped for the third year running — though we may not know until the end of March.
There’s no doubt that coronavirus sent education around the world into a tailspin, creating a crisis of unprecedented proportions for millions of children.
And it’s understandable that exams were ditched, at least in 2020, given the relentless march of a mysterious new disease.
Now coronavirus is more of a known quantity, and vaccination means that, so far in the UK, we’ve been able to push back against its latest mutation without resorting to full-scale lockdown.
Yet thousands more pupils are facing weeks of crippling uncertainty over their immediate, and longer-term, futures after the Education Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, raised the possibility of cancelling the 2022 exam diet.
Many kids have gone to university without sitting externally assessed exams — and that will continue to happen if exams are called off again this year.
The consequences of a reliance on teacher judgment are clear for all to see — soaring pass rates that bosses can’t take seriously, while a lot of children will struggle with undergraduate-level study if they’ve been given a falsely optimistic impression of their abilities.
Importantly, schools haven’t closed this winter, and are unlikely to, though Covid has triggered a partial return to home learning in some areas, staffing is depleted, and the virus is still forcing pupils to isolate.
The challenges ahead can’t be underestimated — but the last couple of years have demonstrated why we had exams in the first place.
It’s astonishing that teaching union bosses seized on the crisis of the pandemic to call for exams to be dropped completely.
Their argument is that teachers are best placed to judge pupils’ skills — and it’s hardly surprising that they’re standing up for their memberships.
But any credible system of assessment has to have checks and balances, and outside scrutiny.
For now, ministers have resisted those demands for the end of formal examination — in a rare example of standing up to the union chiefs who have done so much to block any meaningful reform.
Exams provide a level playing-field, and a chance of redemption for those whose coursework wasn’t up to par, but they also give some reassurance about overall standards of achievement.
Teachers are well-intentioned, and most of them are dedicated professionals, but in marking down their own pupils they inevitably risk casting judgment on their own teaching abilities — that’s why, historically, marking hasn’t been done in-house.
In the first year without exams, pupils’ fates were decided by a faulty algorithm, which led to thousands of children having their marks downgraded, before a belated U-turn by John Swinney.
He was later removed from the post (he’s now in charge of ‘Covid recovery’ — which of course is also going swimmingly).
Then, in 2021, we had exams that weren’t technically exams, though they were tests under exam conditions, sometimes a few of them in one day, after months of disruption and remote learning.
Now we’re told the discredited exams agency, the SQA, which is destined for the scrap heap but still exists thanks to more SNP dawdling, is drawing up contingency plans for the 2022 exams diet.
Planning for the worst is always advisable — and in Scotland it tends to be the likeliest outcome, at least whenever the SNP Government is involved.
But how can anyone have any trust in this organisation — or indeed in Education Scotland, another failing quango set for major reform?
It’s to be stripped of its school inspection powers, not that that’s a huge problem at the moment because there aren’t any inspections going on anyway, thanks to Omicron.
Last week we revealed the minutes of a board meeting where Education Scotland experts admitted Nicola Sturgeon’s ten-year battle to close the pupil attainment gap was bound to fail — there’s nothing like an existential crisis to encourage a bit of honesty, however overdue.
The minutes also showed board members having a frank discussion about their own cluelessness on just about every big issue you could pick, from what they were meant to be doing, to how to fix the Curriculum for Excellence — the one which ministers insist has been a roaring success.
A toxic combination of SNP incompetence and Covid has led to the attainment gap widening to record levels.
It’s easy to see why postponing inspections — in some cases of schools which haven’t been assessed for several years — might appeal to a government which isn’t overly keen on ensuring the public get an accurate picture of what’s going on in classrooms.
The return of traditional exams is also risky for such an administration — as the pass rate is likely to plummet when normal service is resumed.
You can be relatively sure that some of these high-level decisions are driven partly by political self-preservation and blame-evasion, rather than what’s beneficial for children’s prospects, of those of the economy, which depends on skilled school-leavers and graduates.
It’s telling that the upheaval of coronavirus hasn’t stopped teenagers being surveyed about their sexual habits in a weird exercise which ministers claim will ‘play a crucial role in ensuring children and young people have access to the help, advice and services they need’.
S4 pupils are quizzed about their relationships and sexual health, including one question which asks them to list how much sexual experience they’ve had.
Examination of this kind — unnecessary and frankly quite sinister — is clearly a top priority, while actual examination of academic ability is further down the agenda.
Muddled thinking reigns supreme, but then it always has — Mrs Somerville inherited a mess from Mr Swinney and — beyond prevarication and woolly rhetoric — has no idea how to get out of it.
She was previously Social Security Secretary, and made a hash of it — control over some benefits will have to remain with the Department for Work and Pensions until the new body the SNP Government has set up is able to manage them, in 2024.
With a track record like this, can anyone trust her, or her colleagues, to ensure children aren’t short-changed again this year, and bring stability to education after two years of turmoil?
That’s a poser that should be easy enough to answer without much revision.
For now, we’re being asked to believe that this enervated team, with a long history of humiliating failure behind it, can salvage our Covid-battered schools.
But for the SNP the needs of children come a distant second to the more pressing business of attempting to cover up nearly 15 years of failure — which have left so many pupils paying the price for its pathological incompetence, and dangerously skewered priorities.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 11, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant