Muir said exams were ‘necessary and beneficial’ |

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Consensus in education can be hard to come by, but the idea that exams should stay – although not in their current form – seems to be something those working in Scottish education largely agree on.

Yesterday Ken Muir’s report on how major education bodies, including Scotland’s examination agency, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), and its inspection and program organisation, Education Scotland, should to be reformed was published.

It recommends the creation of three new agencies.

As part of the report, a consultation was carried out which received just over 850 responses to a wide range of questions about how Scottish education should be managed in the future.

Just as the questions were broad, so were the views of the respondents. But when it comes to reviews, although there are still ‘mixed messages’, the consultation report found ‘there was general consensus that reviews were necessary and beneficial but should be’ more lighter “and fairer, so as not to be seen as elitist”.

There was also consensus on who should have ultimate responsibility for grading students, “with most respondents agreeing that assessments should primarily be done externally and that an assessment system based solely on teachers’ opinions would be “riddled with iniquities”.

Following the disruptions caused by Covid, the appetite for assessment reform has grown.

Then, last year, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Excellence Program Review criticized the way higher-stage students in Scotland are assessed – saying there was “a gap between the aspirations of the CfE and the qualification system”. He suggested Scotland explore other assessment approaches such as continuous teacher assessment, externally graded projects and in-depth essays, as well as oral and practical presentations.

The Scottish government has said it supports qualifications reform, but externally assessed exams will remain.

In his report, Putting learners at the centre: towards a future vision for Scottish education, Professor Muir says there is an appetite among pupils for a “major overhaul” of the examination system. But the wider range of respondents who took part in the consultation appear less radical in their thinking, with some even arguing for a return to Scotland’s previous examination regime, the Standard Grades.

Standard Grades were replaced by Nationals with the idea that they would better complement the Curriculum for Excellence, but the consultation report states that “respondents commented on the benefits of the old Standard Grades and that perhaps they should be restored”.

However, views similar to those expressed in the OECD report can be found in the consultation.

He finds: “The general feeling was that so much attention was paid to passing exams that attention to other aspects of personal development was lost.”

It also indicates that there was “broad consensus … that more qualifications in a wider range of subjects were welcome”.

But only 39% of the 640 respondents agreed that the creation of a Curriculum and Assessment Agency “will help bridge the disconnect between curricula and assessment, as noted in the OECD report”.

One of the main concerns was that the new agency wouldn’t change anything and would just be “a ‘rebranding’ of old agencies”.

The Muir report recommends that the SQA sees its regulatory and accreditation function abolished and that a new agency, called Qualifications Scotland, be created, responsible for “the design and delivery of qualifications, the operation and certification of examinations and issuance of certificates”.

The idea is that the SQA replacement will no longer “mark their own homework” and there will be “an external perspective on the effectiveness of the examinations and qualifications system”.

It also lays out plans for a new education body to support curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching.

According to the plans, the inspection will be an independent organization.

Regarding inspection, the consultation revealed that 61% of respondents agreed that “independent inspection has an important role to play in review and evaluation, improvement and capacity building” .

He also found that many respondents to the Muir review “stressed the need for any future system to be more improvement and development friendly and less negative/punitive in nature” and also that there was a support for “unannounced visits…the inspection grasps the reality of day-to-day business”.

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