A new, exam-free qualification, developed by the Futures Institute at Dollar Academy (FIDA), is to be piloted by pupils across Scotland. Here, Ian Munro, the Rector of Dollar Academy, explains why he believes that alternatives to ‘traditional’ approaches are so important.

As the Rector of a major private school like Dollar Academy, readers might expect you to be quite happy with what we might call ‘traditional’ education - yet the ISD and wider FIDA project are all about finding alternatives to existing approaches. Why do you think this is so important?

I'd like to think that people would expect me, and this institution to work really hard on delivering the best education we can, and whilst I believe that a lot of the traditional pathway is part of that, it's right that we explore space at the table for other options too.

So yeah, I think people would expect us to do the traditional stuff really well, but I would hope they want us to be ambitious, and to put our heads up, look around the world, and see if there are things that that might work really well in Scotland.

I think for me a part of it - and this maybe sounds a bit cliche, but I really I do believe it - is that I've always been a teacher and an educator who believes passionately that through education we can create a more fair and just society and if you don't believe education can do that then, for me, I kind of think: why are we doing it?

So if you look at the world at the moment, there all these kind of wicked challenges and difficult problems out there, and maybe if education looked a bit different, we'd have a better shot at solving some of these issues.


Some might worry that pursuing projects like this one might not be in line with parental expectations, but you clearly believe that this sort of development is actually the kind of thing parents at your school, and presumably those with children at other schools, actually want to see?

Again, I'd like to believe that every parent across the country would want to see the education system being as ambitious and hard working for the young people within it as it can be, and that's another part of this whole project - bits of it were to do with creating a world class qualification programme, but then allowing people across the country to access it for free was a big part of it for us too.

So I think all parents would want courses to give their children opportunities to do well in the world and a big part of us as a charity was not just doing the curricular reform piece but trying to maybe modernise our  charitable purpose, and make sure that we're really working as hard for as many young people across the country as we can do.

One of the things I've said before is that I think lots of independent schools do lots of good, but I also believe that some independent schools probably can and should work harder for the country. That's certainly part of my thinking on it.


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So this sort of innovation that moves away from traditional education and exams isn’t a barrier for the people whose kids would be at your school, but it’s also something that you think can offer broader benefits as well?

100%. Through the FIDA initiative we've made so many new partners and friends across the whole education ecosystem - independent schools, local authorities at large, and individual schools in the state. There's been a real demand for what Dollar is offering through FIDA.

When we started this journey we didn't think 'oh wow, we're putting out this amazing course and projects that everyone will love.' We tested the water, we ran pilots, we worked with local schools and authorities to see what sort of courses we could build.

And it has been demand driven.

So because more and more young people in schools have wanted the content, that's really inspired us to keep going and turn it into a bigger and bigger thing. So in answer to that question about whether there is demand for it across lots of different environments, I think so far there has been and we just have to hope that more and  more people want to keep studying it because it seems to be doing good stuff.

An aerial view of the planned FIDA building on the grounds of Dollar AcademyAn aerial view of the planned FIDA building on the grounds of Dollar Academy

Some people might still look at a course like this one, where students build portfolios and collaborate instead of sitting an exam, as an ‘easy option’, but for this sort of project to really work it will have to be seen as challenging. How would you respond to those sorts of concerns?

Both systems have imperfections, right? So the folk who support exams because they're bulletproof – well we probably know they're not. And that’s in terms of accessibility for all students, and also the robustness of some of the marking.

At the same time, a portfolio based approach means we need to get the teacher training  right so people are using the very robust metrics that we put in place, and they need to understand them well.

I think that some of the skills that young people are deploying or developing throughout the diploma are different to what happens in an exam situation. If you're going out and talking to people about the need to create a rain collection unit, or a new piece of theatre about homelessness, and if you're going into a community and having those conversations, and then turning them into a product or service, I just think it'd be quite hard to measure all that through an exam. I think that has to be done through portfolio based assessment.

There are lots of different, robust assessment metrics that aren’t exams, but the lived experience of the kids going through these programmes is that it’s hard work. The assessment, although not an exam, calls for really deep engagement.

So it’s about trying to give these other ways of working with young people at least a seat at the table, and an equal seat is what I would be pushing for.