The Reid Foundation, the radical left-wing think-tank, and Brian Boyd, emeritus professor of education at Strathclyde University, have chosen an interesting time to enter the debate about exams in Scottish schools.
This summer, thousands of pupils will sit the new National Exams for the first time. It is a period of great change, and great concern for some, particularly those parents who are worried that their children may end up with fewer qualifications than they would have achieved under the old system.
However, in his paper for the foundation, Professor Boyd has suggested the reforms could go further and the current structure should be replaced with a single exam in the final year. It is an idea modelled on the system in Finland, which has enjoyed conspicuous success - the country was recently top of the PISA rankings, which measure students' abilities in reading, maths and science.
According to Professor Boyd, this Finnish success could be emulated in Scotland with a regime less focused on exams and more focused on broad education. There would be one exam in the last year which could be different for different pupils depending on their interests and abilities. This would remove what Professor Boyd calls the distorting effect that constant exams have on the curriculum.
To a large extent, what the professor suggests is in line with the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and the new National Exams. From the start, the architects of CfE have said they wanted to move from a mechanical focus on exams to encouraging an education that sets a child up for life after school, which is broadly speaking a good idea. As Professor Boyd says, pupils can often pass a Higher while only having a minimum understanding of the subject and its applications.
Whether CfE can deliver on these ambitions remains to be seen as schools are currently in a state of flux, with Standard Grades being replaced with the new Nationals but Highers remaining the same. Many schools also appear to be operating in much the same way as they did before CfE, which may be partly because they are in a transitional period and partly because of resistance among teachers.
Schools will have to be given time before the success of the new curriculum can be judged but the intervention of Professor Boyd should be remembered when it comes to assessing whether CfE has achieved its goals. The professor is on the right lines when he suggests exams should be designed to assess how well a pupil has learned and how well they are able to apply their learning in new contexts. And it is worth asking ourselves: if we were constructing a new education system from scratch, would exams really be the be-all and end-all for pupils from the age of 12 onwards?
Even if the answer is no, however, exams remain an important measure of progress and some such measure will always be required, as Universities Scotland pointed out in its response to the Reid Foundation's paper. In his important contribution to the debate, Professor Boyd suggests the balance is still too much towards exams; there is a good chance that CfE, given time, will correct that.
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