I’d got my final Higher results while cycling through France and Spain with my oldest school friend and I missed out on the B in Economics I needed to meet my conditional entry by just a couple of marks. I was devastated.
I’d spent months cramming for that exam, past papers, practice essays, but the paper on the day was like another language and didn’t cover the areas I was expecting.
We put so much pressure on young people around the qualifications we expect them to get in school. Your whole future can hinge on those few marks, that difference between a B and a C.
It’s tough in normal times, but I can’t imagine what those 16 and 17-year-olds, who should be sitting life-qualifying exams next month, must be thinking right now. Especially considering the record of this SNP government in handling school qualifications through this pandemic.
Last year’s exams debacle was nothing short of a national outrage. After cancelling the exams, SNP ministers stripped out any element of meritocracy from the grading of pupils and awarded results based on an algorithm.
It worked out how schools would usually perform in any normal year, and almost at random dolled out results to fit that profile. The consequences were crushing. Kids who had worked hard in deprived areas and were predicted by their teachers to get As were downgraded because of where they lived. The whole episode has undermined confidence in the government and the Scottish Qualification Authority although ministers eventually agreed to accept teachers’ estimates.
The impact of the exams scandal and the wider pandemic has damaged an education system that was already in crisis after years of government mismanagement. Our teachers have been spinning gold out of straw for decades but the current situation is unsustainable and there are things the next Scottish government needs to do straight away. In short, we need a bounce-back plan.
That’s why Scottish Liberal Democrats are going into this election offering several things that will turn the educational attainment ship around and make life easier for our pupils and our teachers: a teacher job guarantee, so no teacher is unemployed or underemployed; more pupil support assistants to help in classrooms; an immediate term-time expansion of outdoor education; and a new programme of extra supported study for S4-6 who don’t have as much time left in school.
We also need to ensure that the SQA process for grading students this year is not simply an exam by another name. And we should not deploy a computer algorithm like last year, we just need to trust our teachers to make the best assessment of a young person’s ability on the basis of the work they’ve submitted.
We put so much pressure on 16 and 17-year-olds in normal times. I learned that in France 25 years ago. As it happens, I met my wife at Aberdeen University where I eventually got a place and so, even though I didn’t know it at the time, that phone call in Biarritz was one of the most fortuitous moments of my life.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh Western