The ‘exams debacle’ without exams

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On 12th August 2000, the SQA Chief resigned because of the ‘exams debacle’ around Higher Still. The education secretary at the time was resisting calls for resignation. This will sound familiar given the current controversy over the latest SQA results. Ironically, the Opposition education spokesperson leading the calls for the education secretary’s resignation in 2000 was Nicola Sturgeon. At the time, she said

for a Scottish Minister to say he could not guarantee the higher results is without parallel and he has to go… Ministers have been warned for months [that] the new exam system was not ready, but they made the political decision to press ahead and now we are seeing the consequences

Nicola Sturgeon, quoted in the Guardian, 13th August 2000

Again, this is strikingly familiar territory. The current circumstances are completely different and incredibly challenging, of course. We should not understate the devastation and disruption caused by COVID-19, but neither can it be legitimately claimed that this situation is without any precedent. The pandemic has revealed and exacerbated pre-existing injustices, and as such it presents an opportunity to address them. This is not a party political argument – the game of political football around education carries on being played by all parties – in 2000 it was Scottish Labour and Lib Dems in power, now it is the SNP, and just today we are seeing a similar turn of events in England, Wales and Northern Ireland under the Conservatives. The point is that these events reveal the prior and underlying vectors of power, injustice and inequality. It is these underlying issues that I am concerned with here.

The First & Deputy Ministers were right to apologise about the latest SQA results and to act decisively. However, this situation could have been avoided. It was entirely predictable and the scale of the challenge was clearly beyond the abilities of statistical modelling. Now we have a situation where the very meaning and value of these results can legitimately be brought into question by universities, employers and others. Perhaps this was true all along: there is a bigger philosophical discussion to be had around the role of schools and examination results in education. Ivan Illich argued in 1971 that selection on the basis of prior education is just another form of discrimination. Indeed, as pointed out to me on Twitter, the 1947 Advisory Council report on Scottish secondary education states that external examinations are ‘one of the greatest obstacles’ to the ideals of education (see Fyfe Report, 1947, para 197-198). Why do we adhere to a system where examination results – at best an unreliable proxy measure of ability and learning – determine subsequent opportunities for young people? Why do we cling to the myth of social mobility at the expense of social justice?

A stubborn attainment gap is inevitable while unjust social inequalities persist and deepen. No amount of innovation – be it pedagogical, algorithmic or bureaucratic – can counter the effects of social inequality. Some young people will continue to miss out unless things really change. The latest political crisis about SQA results could turn out to be an important catalyst for such change, but only if it leads to real dialogue and a shift in power that exposes and opposes an exploitative, discriminatory, exclusive and indifferent status quo. As the Higher Still fiasco in 2000 shows, we have been here before, and crises do not necessarily lead to resolution or sustained improvements. Platitudes of ‘unprecedented circumstances’ or ‘lessons to be learned’ are simply not relevant.

John Swinney’s announcement of an expansion of university places is to be welcomed and can go some way to compensate for the botched results. This can ensure that more Scottish-domiciled students, including those who need additional support, can further their education (as indicated in comments from Anton Muscatelli, Principal at University of Glasgow). All is not lost. However, this is not enough. Many young people will continue to miss out. Surely a national Job Guarantee and/or Basic Income scheme for young people, and other policies for economic recovery such as those being developed by Common Weal and the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, are now necessary in the medium to longer term.

The immediate situation with SQA results can be best analysed if we understand that it reveals some of the enduring political and economic interests at play in the Scottish education system. We still have a stubbornly hierarchical system dominated by a ‘leadership class’ (Humes 1986). In this scenario it is clear that Govt Ministers and the policy community, once again, simply ignored the concerns and warnings of critics. Critique and protest are important – but there is a hegemonic trap at play in this routine of policy making in Scottish education, which seems to be shifting from a model of ‘consensus’ to one of contestation. It cannot be right that these debates mainly play out in the press or parliamentary chambers, where education inevitably becomes a political football for opportunistic agenda-setters to have a square go. This makes it seem as though young people’s futures are somehow up for debate. That is the trap. Whoever wins the contest, it is ‘the system’ that ultimately wins and remains roughly the same. We are trapped into thinking that radical change is not possible and that education will always be a crude sorting of winners and losers. This need not, indeed it cannot, continue.

Illich’s solution was to ‘deschool’ (or de-institutionalise) society completely. Most philosophers of education would now recognise this as an important but flawed thesis, as did Illich himself in 1995, when he wrote

While my criticism of schooling in that book may have helped some people reflect on the unwanted social side effects of that institution — and perhaps pursue meaningful alternatives to it — I now realize that I was largely barking up the wrong tree.

Illich 1995, quoted by Bruno-Jofré and Zaldivar, 2012, p.574

If anything we need to re-institutionalise education and society so that progress is not determined by the volatility of markets, domestic politics or global shocks. This means re-institutionalising education around the principles of social justice and democracy, informed by an understanding of current relations of power and the disenfranchisement caused by the current system. Addressing the ‘poverty-related attainment gap’ is vital but it barely scratches the surface of what is needed. Given the context of pandemic and long-term economic decline, we need to be radical in our conceptualisation and actions.

Above all we need to work out how to transcend short-term vested interests in the longer-term interests of young people, with young people themselves at the front and centre of that discussion. However clichéd it might sound – it is their future after all.

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