By Professor Henry Maitles

NOW that schools have restarted across UK, there are thoughts in England and Wales about delaying the 2021 exam diet and in Scotland Professor Priestly is examining the whole 2020 exam result and algorithm fiasco, I believe it is time for a radical rethink about school leaving achievement measurement -- exams.

Once of the biggest surprises for me when I moved into the university sector in 1995 as a lecturer after 18 years as a high school teacher was that there were almost no exams in most universities in most subjects.

After years of being quizzed in school as to my exam results – the only measure apparently of the quality of my teaching – the university model of a series of modules, the mastery of which depended on a student’s ability to submit an assignment, was actually liberating. For both the students and the lecturers.

This is a measure of whether the student understood and could use the knowledge developed during the learning; exams are nothing but a measure of memory. Learn the content by rote, regurgitate it, forget it. It is a terrible indictment of our school leaving qualifications.

In fact, academics in the university spend lots of time in year one of university re-educating the students in differences between shallow learning (their Highers) and deeper learning (module assignments). When you think about it, when you go to a doctor or lawyer or any graduate, you don’t expect them only to regurgitate something they learned; we expect them to have developed the skills to find out the answer to the problem.

So, why do we have these exams? I think three reasons: firstly, in a managerialist education system it is a way of ensuring that teachers teach to the test and can be measured in how well their students pass or fail; secondly, it is a good tool for enabling national and local league table placings to be developed – the measure of a “good” school becomes its higher results; and thirdly it allows for a lazy method of university selection in most subjects without pesky interviews. Indeed, when the committee drawing up the Curriculum For Excellence proposals in the early 2000s discussed getting rid of exams, the universities were clear that they wanted them.

These are not good enough reasons for an exam system that heavily discriminates in favour of private schools, schools in better-off areas and after-school tutoring – the amount of private tutoring going on in rich areas is staggering. Indeed, for many teachers, a key critique of the Curriculum for Excellence – often developed in letters from teachers in the Herald -- is that it doesn’t prepare students for the Higher exams – the tail wagging the dog.

When I was high school teaching in the 1980s and 1990s the best-selling school education support books was How to pass Higher English and the series for other subjects. They still are. They are excellent for the exams, as they gave exemplars of model answers which could be remembered and repeated.

It is time for a root and branch rethink on the model of Highers, examined as they are, as a measure of achievement or attainment. Time for them to go.

Henry Maitles is Emeritus Professor of Education at the School of Education and Social Sciences, University of the West of Scotland.