Letter from Edinburgh - Friday 25th November 2016

We demand a lot from our teachers. Looking after our children and educating them is a tall order. The profession does a great job in the most challenging of circumstances.

Parents want the best for their child. A good education. Exam passers. A route into work, or college or university. We don’t ask much do we?

This week at Parliament’s Education Committee we got into the detail of exams, how they are set and marked. We interviewed Education Scotland too, who are responsible for the policy guidance about what is taught in schools.

And the outcome of all this? I fear we have created the perfect paper storm. Parliament introduced Curriculum for Excellence in 2004. It has been through a gestation period lasting a decade but is now the philosophy behind school education.

CfE has been supported, if that is the right word, by vast amounts of guidance produced by the government quango Education Scotland. Now with worries about literacy and numeracy, the government is pushing ahead with collecting data about a pupil’s performance at various stages of primary school and the early stages of secondary.

At the same time the Scottish Qualifications Authority have introduced new exams with standard grades becoming national 4s and 5s. Highers stay but have been adapted. CfE has meant less choice in exam subjects too. So there has been a huge amount of change.

Class teachers are having to cope with all this. The sheer volume of guidance was provided to the committee. I came across one example by a physics teacher. The new physics higher assessment has changed three times in three years and has been accompanied by 81 pages of guidance.

In deciphering all this, the physics teacher has had to use not one but two separate SQA websites. Why? I asked the SQA boss this week.

The geography higher paper was found to be poor by more than half the nation’s geography teachers in a survey presented to Parliament.

So this has to be sorted. We all need to be confident that the body charged with setting the exams are doing their job correctly. I asked the education secretary John Swinney to make sure the SQA are improving given the teacher concerns. He will because no government can afford a crisis over exams.

At the same time, it is essential that these separate bodies work together on teacher workload. They self-evidently do not do that at the moment. Teachers and schools receive forests of information from these national quangos. That must be streamlined. Communication must be improved. And documents must be written in plain English. Not too much to expect, I hear you ask. But education is dominated by jargon.

All this is too important for your children to be ignored. So Brexit or not Brexit, Parliament must ask lots of questions of government and its agencies on education. If we can help to create some space for teachers to use their professional talents to the benefit of our children that is a task worth doing. 

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