Qualified Failure?

Everybody remembers their exams: the tight feeling at the top of the stomach; drinking water as advised, only to need the toilet three quarters of the way through; tsking when someone’s phone has gone off; the horror when you realise that phone is yours; the cotton wool head at the final question with only three minutes left – all familiar I’m sure.  Yet in Scotland, this year is going to be slightly different.  A new qualification – National Five – is being introduced, the first exam to be run in conjunction with the Curriculum for Excellence.  Curriculum for Excellence seemed a great step forward in education, recognising the importance of creativity, problem based learning and building skills outside the normal memory test associated with doing well at school.  All good stuff – who wouldn’t support these ideas?  

Yet, the new English exam is very similar to, well, the old one.  In fact, it could be argued that it tests an even narrower set of skills than the Standard Grade exam it is replacing. 

The reason for stating this is that the new exam places the onus on answering questions on texts studied in class, while the old Standard Grade gave the candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their skill in writing in a number of different ways. Any creative aspect of writing is relegated to the folio of writing which the candidates have to prepare in class and which is worth less.  Please do not misunderstand: I am not defending the Standard Grade, which had its faults, such as a folio which was too unwieldy.  On the surface, this appears to be a non-issue – the pupils do not know the questions in the new exam beforehand, so they will of course need ingenuity to answer.   The problem, however, with ingenuity is that it is ethereal; a task might present no problems for a candidate one day, yet the next day an almost identical task may be completely beyond them.  And on results day, a teacher offering up their hands and stating: “They must have had an off-day,” rings hollow. Understandably, teachers are at pains to remove any variables, and limit the need for ingenuity, in fact ignoring many aspects that the Curriculum for Excellence sought to inculcate.  

The reason I state this is purely because I do it myself.  The most efficient way to get candidates to be able to answer an exam question on a text is to write a model essay which answers a similar question, the pupils can then go and learn this and using only a bit of savvy can adapt this to the questions in the exam.  Minimal reading of the text is needed.  The exam is only a memory test.

Undoubtedly, candidates studying English should be able to demonstrate a knowledge of literary techniques, but couldn’t this be done in a more creative way? Perhaps, under exam conditions, producing a short text like a poem, short story or a short story themselves – even a short film, showing awareness of these literary techniques by using them for themselves.  Even something like blogging, with its use of tagging and understanding of audience might be used.  Why not?  

What is more, we would more than likely find some real additions to the Scottish canon as a result, ensuring that Scottish Literature and the written Scottish identity continues to exist in a vibrant way.