Higher maths was beyond me.
In fact, any subject that didn't allow the sprinkling of borrowed eloquence over a few poor crumbs of knowledge was never – I picked this word up later – my metier. "Good at sounding good": they should have put that on the certificate. I could have done them an essay on the topic.
Self-evidently, this was a long time ago. You didn't have to be a Hazlitt or a Stevenson, but if you were inclined towards the liberal arts and could sound plausible – there goes my entire CV – you could get through the Scottish education system. It was a conjuring trick (with footnotes).
That being the case, I'm the last person to find fault with any young person who has just slogged through a thicket of exams. There's no merit, either, in picking on teachers to satisfy a prejudice. Those being taught are as bright as they ever were – probably brighter, given the cumulative effects of the web – and those doing the teaching do a better job than most parents will ever understand.
Finance aside, education is not in crisis. Accusations of dumbing down tend to come from those who long ago forgot anything they ever learned. If exam pass rates are increasing it means, at minimum, that schools have mastered the art of getting their pupils through exams. For most parents that is, whether they admit it or not, the idea.
It doesn't mean there are no problems. It doesn't mean, equally, that a self-evident success cannot be in some way related to failure. You can accept, simultaneously, that an increase of close to 7% in the Higher pass rate since 2000 is a remarkable achievement and still say that something isn't quite right. There's a mismatch, a discrepancy.
It amounts to this. How can it be that close to 77% of pupils are gaining Highers when universities find the need to impose remedial teaching on first-year students? Literacy and maths, above all, are held to be deficient. What's more, this remedial action is being taken by institutions which are themselves accused, often enough, of making their degrees too easy. No joke intended: something doesn't add up.
Like the schools, the universities report that applicants don't lack acuity: that isn't the problem. "Dumbed down", that dumb phrase, simply doesn't apply. But as a House of Lords committee has just reported, people who struggle to handle maths are turning up for science courses. Across the board, some proud holders of Higher English cannot express themselves, say tutors, in writing that would pass for literate. Why is that?
Employers now and then make similar claims, but their evidence tends to be anecdotal. It's possible, equally, that while fretting over the absence of traditional skills those same employers overlook modern virtues. If they do have a point, however, and if impressive exam results have a less than impressive impact in the world of work, the questions remain.
In universities, remedial teaching is no longer a novelty. Strathclyde University, as we reported recently, is running "top up" maths classes for first-year students. The teaching of basic English has become commonplace across the sector, here and in England, where the magical ability of schools to crack the exam challenge has begun to defy reasonable belief. So familiar solutions are proffered: new curricula; new (or old) exams; more "rigour". And more young people with their lives turned upside down.
Through it all, the implied insult to youth is grotesque. You are set a task, you work hard, and by all the identified criteria you succeed. Then some crusty survivor of the 1970s steps forward to tell you that, in fact, you haven't truly succeeded at all. Suddenly, your qualifications are disqualified. Through it all the dinosaur forgets to mention that back in the 1970s the same arguments were rehearsed. Our exams, they said, were easy compared to those set in the austere 1950s.
That kind of rhetoric missed the point then, and misses the point now. The golden age of the Stakhanovite elite was always a myth. Equally, the habit of offering remedial teaching to first-years is far from universal. But why is it happening at all when school exam passes are rising and universities seem to find ever more candidates worthy of good degrees? How do you arrive at an exam – the Standard grade, in this case – with a 98.9% pass rate?
Schools, it seems, have mastered the Higher, yet what is required for the Higher doesn't always suit the universities. Those institutions, in turn, complain about ill-equipped students, yet still manage to turn out more and more graduates with degree passes which were once the exception, not the rule. Through it all the young, to repeat, remain as bright as ever.
Some part of the problem must lie with exam boards. Another issue must have to do with co-operation, or the lack of it, between schools and universities. And there is a third argument to be had, surely, over the entrance requirements for higher education. There is no point in quibbling over whether exams at any level are easy or hard. Are they the right exams for the right purpose?
In Scotland, still another curriculum is supposed to transform everything. We shall see. In England, little Michael Gove, proud product of the old Scottish system, is overseeing another headlong Tory retreat towards what he imagines are "traditional standards". Like all his kind, he forgets that the three Rs were venerated most in an age of mass illiteracy.
That isn't our problem. The success in Highers is a real success, but only if all that is being measured is the ability of pupils, schools and Government to hit a target. Perhaps we should wonder a little more about the nature of the target.
Most universities, equally, are doing a fine job in turning out growing numbers of graduates with enviable degrees. For the institutions there are financial imperatives at work, after all, and those tend to obscure any number of contradictions.
Perhaps we could measure achievement in education better if first we could define achievement. As things stand, we are failing that test.
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