How can we make them both useful?

 Author: Morag

With death being the first certainty, should we now sell the heat generated from cremated bodies to the national grid? This is something that we are just about to start questioning in public.  We seem to have got over our issues about donating useful organs from the dead to help the living, so quite rightly, we are now opening up debate about how to make even more use of us when we are no longer energy consumers. I’m not quite sure if this counts as “green” energy, (am I being socially insensitive?) but it sounds as though it may be more dependable than some of our wind farms if some recent information is anything to go by!

The other life certainty has become exams as a lot of people now seem to be able to avoid taxes but you can’t do anything without a written qualification of some sort! However I’m not sure that the usefulness of exams is as clear- cut as the usefulness of organ donation and heat recycling. Maybe this is not as sensitive a subject for discussion as the dead creating heat for the living, but it is taboo to suggest that most of the school exams system is not particularly useful to all our young people!  I write this as I have spent a number of weeks looking at a variety of offerings from a number of bodies and I am beginning to think that the “exam “ is still the end, rather than the means to becoming a useful citizen. The Higher is still viewed as the “gold” standard and this academic rigor is only achievable by a minority of students. How does that make the majority feel?  Second rate?

There are of course a few exceptions to this – courses that are more practical (vocational?) then theoretical (hence us offering ASDAN COPE to schools)  in these particular courses, students, at level 3, are expected to take responsibility for their own learning. I know that Curriculum for Excellence was designed to do just this – liberate the constraints of subject specialism, encourage personalisation and choice, responsibility for their own learning, but……in my discussions with schools and teachers, there is still a huge emphasis on how many and what grade of exams the students have passed. Consequently, a lot of the learning is still teacher led as it seems to me that teachers are assessed as to how well they have got students through the various exam hurdles. If the kids don’t do well in exams and the teacher is questioned – who is responsible for the learning and then who owns the learning? How can we develop the responsible citizens we crave if we don’t really let them take responsibility?  Ultimately schools are driven to get the number of exam passes up to make the school a “magnet” school and in turn ensures a good cohort of students which perpetuates the academic system! With our enduring absorption of favouring front left lobe thinkers are we still creating a two tier system of academic versus vocational? The by- product of this is that a lot our young people may leave school with good theoretical learning but employers complain because they can’t do practical things or use their initiative!  In my current favourite book “The Case for Working with Your Hands – or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good” , there is an interesting argument that the tide is turning and we will need more people with practical skills and problem solving in the future, as the online world will change what we, as humans require. An interesting read!

How can we then try to address this imbalance? One obstacle I have encountered, apart from the need for academic qualifications, is that offering alternatives to SQA exams are perceived as more expensive and in a time of budget restraint, a good alternative argument is required.    From my limited research into this it appears that since the SQA are partly funded by the government, local authorities pay for these qualifications, but if schools want to offer an alternative such as ADSDAN or ILM then the schools have to fund this out of their own budget.  If this is not the case, please let me know and I will amend in my next qualifications update! However SQA are now offering more vocational qualifications which can be up to SCQF level 6- a higher equivalence which may offer an alternative to accredit a different, and perhaps more useful, skill set for the majority of our students which will appeal to universities and  potential employers alike.

So this is my issue with our current exam system, to quote a favourite quote, “exams value what is measurable but don’t measure what is valuable” The active learning by doing is harder to “teach” capture and measure for each child, so I do understand that there needs to be some sort of “exam” to ensure tax payers (that are left!) are getting value for money, hence my foraging for alternative such as ASDAN and Institute of Leadership and Management courses.  I think we should all continue to question as to whether the “5 A’s at one sitting to get to uni” approach gives us the breadth and usefulness that our society needs, to prosper?  If courses are still broken down into hours, units, subject areas, timetables and ultimately exams to see if candidates have met the predefined criteria, then the school is judged on how well they have done this, we are still teaching to the exams  and not the students needs. Isn’t it better value for money to have young people free to learn skills that are useful to themselves and society even if there is no formal exam at the end of it?   The enduring conundrum to solve is; how do we get society to perceive all of us as having equal potential and merit so long as the exam system only rewards the chosen few with a university place and a debt of £25000?  The unsuccessful in the exams race hope for an apprenticeship, or a job, but I believe they still have the feeling that they weren’t quite “good enough” despite all their other useful skills

To finishn an optimistic note,(the sun is shiningtoday!) I do perceive a sea- change in attitude towards academic and vocational education having equal merit, but as always it take a long time to filter through the educational system. Let’s hope that we can find a way of more quickly ensuring that education in schools can be allowed to look beyond sitting and passing exams so that our current young people can be happy and useful in life before they are donating organs or in the crematorium, heating the local swimming pool or nursing home!