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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 December 2005, 10:25 GMT
Testing time for education system
By Peter MacRae
Producer of The Investigation

As school pupils across Scotland prepare to sit Standard Grade and Higher "prelims", a more flexible approach to exams is being encouraged by Education Minister Peter Peacock.

The move could lead to more significant education changes in the years ahead.

This month's Radio Scotland "Investigation" with Ken Macdonald, asks if our children sit too many exams and whether our exams system makes it difficult to provide a broader educational experience for pupils.

Professor Brian Boyd, of Strathclyde University, definitely thinks there are too many exams getting in the way of effective learning.

Brian Boyd
Prof Boyd said pupils in Scotland are the most examined in Europe

He said if you took all the assessments in place for a child from the age of three through to the end of fifth year, then children in Scotland were the most examined in Europe.

If the mere thought of sitting an exam brings a tightening of the stomach muscles as you read this, it's probably because you remember how you felt when you sat your exams.

Pupils today feel just as much stress and pressure to do well in their exams as ever. That's because the predominant view is that getting good results is a gateway to further success.

Success rates

But many people in education circles are asking how useful is the information needed to make the grade?

And is the system teaching pupils to pass exams rather than giving them a good education?

Firstly, exams results are used to measure how well our education system is performing, year on year. Perceptions of effectiveness of individual schools, departments and teachers can be affected by annual exams results.

There's terrific pressure on teachers to improve attainment and in turn teachers pass that pressure onto the pupils
David Allen

Principal Teacher of Modern Studies at Elgin High School, David Allen, told Radio Scotland: "These success rates are measured in terms of how many level fives and level sixes each pupil gets in the annual diet of examinations.

"There's terrific pressure on teachers to improve attainment and in turn teachers pass that pressure onto the pupils."

Knowing these results are going to be measured leads teachers to concentrate on exam practice with pupils.

The topics and the types of questions which are likely to appear in Standard Grades and Highers are reasonably predictable, and teachers spend a significant amount of time making sure their pupils can answer these.

This is a phenomenon known as "Teaching to the Test".

Exam hall
Pupils across Scotland are preparing for exams

Secondly, teaching to the test means there's less time available for pupils to develop skills which would be useful to them in the outside world.

Skills such as team-working, creative thinking, problem-solving and inquiring and research abilities.

A lack of these skills is increasingly being noticed by employers and universities, two of the main routes along which exam success is supposed to help a student.

Flexible approach

David Caldwell, of Universities Scotland, said: "It isn't the ideal preparation because we need students to develop an inquiring approach and not just accept what is said to them.

"I'm sure teachers at school are trying to encourage that approach, but it may be that more frequent exams make that more difficult to achieve."

But there are signs that more flexibility is creeping into the system.

Last year Dalziel High School in Motherwell moved its standard grade English and Maths to 3rd year and the results compared well with the traditional 4th year standard grades.

Education Minister Peter Peacock
We're in the midst of a very major curricular review and that is raising questions about what is right to assess in our new education system
Education Minister Peter Peacock

It's gone down well with parents and pupils who, with two years to do Highers, no longer feel the pressure of the more usual two-term dash to the main exams in fifth year.

And for those Dalziel pupils not staying on to fifth year, doing their Standard Grades a year early has allowed the school to give them the chance to take more exams or vocational courses with local employers to help ease the transition into the outside world and make 4th year more relevant to them.

The Dalziel experience came about because the Scottish Executive removed the "Age and Stage" regulation from schools.

This dictated that Standard Grades could only be taken in 4th year etc. And it's one of the signs of a more flexible approach being encouraged by Mr Peacock.

He told Radio Scotland: "We're in the midst of a very major curricular review and that is raising questions about what is right to assess in our new education system and does that mean the same configuration of exams as we currently have."

Stretching pupils

In particular, Mr Peacock has raised questions about the future of the Standard Grade and where it fits in the new national qualifications.

He said: "The potential is there for some change, but not some root-and-branch reform.

"It's more about how do we pull things together, make it work more effectively, get more challenge for kids and make sure kids are stretched appropriately, but also get the chance to sit exams at the right time in their career."

You can hear Radio Scotland's Investigation into our exams system on Monday morning with Ken Macdonald and Gary Robertson starting at 0850 GMT.

Hear Peter Peacock's views on the education system

Pupils give views on exam time
04 Dec 05 |  Scotland
Exam upgrade scheme here to stay
16 Aug 05 |  Scotland
Exam results sent by text message
05 Aug 05 |  Scotland

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