Are exams undermined by curriculum reform?

SCHOOLS are regularly exhorted to listen and respond to the views of their students. The Herald (4 February 2014) carried a detailed, thoughtful letter from a fourth year Falkirk student criticising the failures of the Curriculum for Excellence exam system, but also stating that curricular content was being eroded.
Last summer Clive Chamber, the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s former principal examiner of maths, said the 2013 paper was easier than any previous Higher maths exam paper, a view widely echoed among Scottish maths teachers.
One former Scottish maths advisor went further: “In all the 150+ schools I’ve supported over the past three years, the consensus is clear, that numeracy skills have actually declined since the introduction of CfE, and they weren’t particularly strong prior to then.”
Accusations of loss of intellectual rigour have been the cris de couer of every educational conservative since Aristotle was a boy. The accusation has taken a new twist however with Flora Scarabello’s letter to The Herald, asserting Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) reforms have undermined the exam system.
She argued the new National qualifications lack rigour, are less demanding and marking standards are dropping. She also criticised the insistence students pursue six subjects in the senior phase.
Her view that CfE has “thrust more rules, regulations and paperwork on teachers” would be echoed by many Scottish classroom teachers. Whether grade-inflation is rooted in the philosophy of CfE or is a function of a statistic-driven imperative to “improve” results is a moot point.
Scottish education has always been driven by the exam system. Exams have defined what is taught and how it is taught.
So long as one-off-examinations predicate future life chances, teaching and the curriculum will accommodate the demands of the examination. If exams become easier (or harder), teaching will adjust accordingly.
There is a strong case that the planning of CfE never addressed any of the major issues in the upper school curriculum. It simply added a two-term dash to the 4th year exams to the existing two-term dash in 5th year.
None of the new senior phase, i.e. the curriculum for 4th-6th years, was planned in line with the CfE philosophy. In the absence of an overall curriculum design (just more of the same for the academic stream and a few wishes and prayers for the rest) teachers are being left to develop systems on the hoof.
There is a case for a frank admission that CfE, especially the senior phase, requires drastic interventions and inspired leadership. Unlike the scenario when Standard Grades were introduced, there was no effective piloting of National 4/5 procedures. Schools instead, have been left overwhelmingly to their own devices but burdened with bureaucratic procedures of constant unit testing, retesting, retaining and verifying evidence.
Danny Murphy, former Headteacher at Lornshill Academy in Alloa, is clear as to what is required. “Aspects of the ‘senior phase’ need urgent attention. Without the authority of a national framework and a requirement for local authorities to bang heads together, the responsibility for creating coherent pathways will end up with schools.”
Any critical review, however, of current educational changes is defiantly resisted. Walter Humes, Visiting Professor of Education at Stirling University, said: “Government ministers and the leaders of key educational organisations all have a vested interest in maintaining things are going well and standards are being maintained.
“This stance is possible because of the considerable powers of ‘narrative privilege’ It is their story of Scotland’s educational achievements that becomes the received wisdom. Anyone who dares to question it is marginalised.”
Getting the new exams right will answer only the technical aspect of Flora Scarabello’s letter. The larger question is whether the intellectual content of Scottish education is being gradually eroded by a political and administrative class utterly thirled to continually improving examination statistics as the sole measure of educational success.
Measures, such as PISA, suggest that Scottish education attainment is stuck in the middle of international comparators. The proposition that our gradually improving exam results signify success may be a very dangerous illusion, for how better to increase the pass rates than to lower the knowledge levels required to pass?
Flora Scarabella has posed big questions; and she may be right. How will Education Secretary Michael Russell and Education Scotland chief executive Bill Maxwell respond to that voice?

The above article was first published in The Herald on 14 February 2014: http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx

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