A Reaction to the Hayward Report

High Hopes

The Hayward report has finally been published. Here is a quick summary:

  • Scrap all exams before S5 and S6. This would mean no exams at National 5.
  • Have students work towards a Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SPA), made up of “programmes of learning” (normal classes like French, Maths, Art etc.), “A personal pathway” which takes into account extracurricular activities, and an ungraded project where students look into a topic in depth.
  • The recommendations seek to end the “two term dash”, and bring the senior phase in line with the vision of curriculum for excellence.
  • There is a desire for parity of esteem between Highers and SCQF 6.

Assessment in Scotland is in need of radical reform. The Hayward report gets it spectacularly wrong.

A Harmful Substance

To begin we need to talk about the worst part of our assessments: National 4. Students do not value it. Parents do not value it. It is the butt of jokes in staff rooms. Why?

Teachers are under pressure to have students pass National 4. We are also told exactly what the assessments look like- in maths we know what questions will be asked, and we have booklets of questions that are nearly identical to the tests for students to practice. National 4 creates a massive incentive to teach in a procedural way. It’s teaching to the test at its very worst- we know what’s on the test and can spoon-feed students. This procedural teaching fails to help students understand the material, and sets them up to fail when they progress to National 5. Ask any teacher “does National 4 prepare your students for National 5?” and just drink in their facial expression.

What strikes me most about National 4 though is its corrosive effect on the Broad General Education (BGE). There is a widespread problem in Scotland of “Assessment Banking.” This is a practice whereby BGE students (S1-S3) are made to sit National assessments, so that evidence can be banked. This means that some schools are losing a significant portion of BGE time, where deep understanding of the subject is meant to be developed, in order to pursue a qualification that actively undermines their chances of achieving at a higher level.

Teachers also don’t know how to assign students as being at Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) levels. Many schools actually use National 3/4 assessments as their way of assigning levels. I’ve spoken with plenty of teachers who have been candid with me about how levels are assigned, and to say that the Curriculum for Excellence is not working would be an understatement. National levels are effectively all we have.

One of the motivating factors behind the Hayward Report is the idea that there is a disconnect between the Curriculum for Excellence and the senior phase. Hayward is suggesting that we make the senior phase more like CfE- are the writers of the review really not aware that CfE has failed? Are they not aware that National levels have usurped CfE ones?

Another aim of the proposals is to avoid “the two term dash.” In my subject, Maths, our curriculum is not full. We have a fraction of the material to cover for National 5 than English students have for their GCSEs. This two term dash is caused by time lost during the precious BGE phase. The Curriculum for Excellence 4th level is only really a whisker below where National 5 is. There’s no need to dash.

When you put pressure on teachers to have all students pass an assessment, you give teachers poor quality worksheets designed to aid spoon-feeding of students, and tell the teachers exactly what questions will be asked in the assessment… you kill all chances of learning, along with the motivation and dignity of students for whom these assessments were created.

A Sorry Addiction

Education is Scotland is driven by bad statistics. Take the headline statistics for Numeracy and Literacy:

You could be forgiven for thinking that over 70% of school leavers achieved a National 5 in maths in recent years. But “SCQF Level 5” includes not only National 5 Maths and Apps, but also the “National 5 Numeracy unit.” The numeracy unit is similar to National 4- an assessment that teachers can see before students sit it. These statistics are largely meaningless- are students achieving a valued qualification or aren’t they? Is 70% good?

There has been a race to the bottom in Scotland, and schools have gone to extreme lengths to boost the numbers of students achieving these levels. Cheating is part of the fabric of Scottish education. Students who have missed swaths of time at school come back, are spirited away to a quiet room, and miraculously have passed their unit assessments.

It’s time that we start calling things out for what they are. Giving students multiple practice questions, nearly identical to the real test questions, is cheating. Assessing students question by question, so no thought from the student is needed, is cheating.

Councils and schools are addicted to boosting statistics that are largely irrelevant. Our core purpose should be serving our students, and working in their interests. When we devalue a qualification by cheating, or pull a student out of lessons to pass a random unit with no understanding, just to give them a piece of paper valued by nobody… who exactly are we helping?

Talk to Frank

Jenny Gilruth, the Education Secretary, announced that any reform will be paused until teachers have been consulted.

That fact that Gilruth has called for more consultation with teachers is a clear sign the government are well aware there will be implementation issues. It’s also a tacit acceptance that teachers have not been properly consulted with up to this point. The issues are plain to see to those actually teaching on a day to day basis.

For me, the Hayward report comes across to me as naïve. Give me a school of 400 middle-class children and I reckon we could give these proposals a jolly good go as is. But in schools of 1500 students, with the behaviour issues, apathy and the relentless pressure for students to pass, the proposals aren’t workable. What is going to happen when some students refuse to engage in a project, but the council makes it clear everybody is meant to achieve a Scottish Diploma of Achievement?

I see a future where students have “project” on their timetables, and they turn up to be cajoled through a “project booklet” that’s impossible to fail at. The vicious cycle starts and projects become the new National 4- any meaning they aspired to have will be stripped out of them, a hoop to jump through.

External assessments are the fairest way of awarding qualifications. Properly set, they can encourage conceptual teaching, rather than teaching to the booklet/test.

In my view we need more assessments not fewer. I’d propose a modular assessment scheme- exams in December and May in S4, S5 and S6. Exams would cover a smaller amount of skills, and by having more of them the pressure on any particular exam would be less. Students could take modules in e.g. Level 4 Statistics, Level 5 Quadratics, Level 6 Mathematical Modelling… and achieve the equivalents of National 5 and Higher by building these up. Each unit would be assessed externally, with exams assessing both procedural knowledge and the ability to apply knowledge to rich problem solving tasks.

Wouldn’t that be a better move than the Hayward recommendations?

Just Say No

So I have a modest proposal for Scotland’s teachers: Just Say No.

We should have said no when councils started to undermine Standard Grade and Credit by bringing Intermediate into S4 because it was easier.

We should have said no to National 4s replacing fair, external assessments with easy to game internal assessments which bring massive workload issues with them.

We should have said no when the dignity of National 4 students was taken from them, when teaching to the test and pulling students out of classes to ’just get them a pass’ started to become the norm.

It’s time to say no now. We’re not doing it. Having taught outside of Scotland before coming here, I sometimes find it difficult not to grab teachers by the shoulders and shake them: You do realise this isn’t normal, and this isn’t right?

No more cheating. It’s time to get clean. And as soon as the Government decides it wants to listen, let’s be ready to tell it like it is.