We could argue all day about whether things are harder for school kids today than they were for us, whatever generation from which we might be spawned. In my day, I was vomited out of the end of school with ‘O’ Grades, then a couple of Highers. Some of my mates got further in the race, some of them dropped off much earlier than me. In the intervening years there have been changes to exam system but, pretty much, people still get further than others, some drop off early. Still. So, surely, the experience of the ‘weaker’ students, the mates who would normally have dropped out of sight, has changed hasn’t it?
For the last twelve or so years in Scotland senior pupils could still achieve the Holy Grail of Higher English but those who couldn’t reach had the safety nets of Intermediate One or Two to fall back on. At least they would get something. Sigh. We convinced ourselves that Achievement for all was better than what had gone on for years and the ‘less able’ left school with more than they had ever expected. Maybe that’s true. However, is there a chance that we have sold these kids down the river by missing the point? Are they leaving school any more educated or prepared than they would have been when I was at school? I’m not convinced.
Perhaps it is the baffling lament for these Intermediate courses that troubles me. We are currently in the mind-boggling scenario of developing National courses at the same time as we are delivering them. Every teacher in Scotland is feeling the pressure; fingers are being pointed; tensions are flaring up; staffrooms are boiling. With the new Nationals courses there is no safety net for the ‘less able’. There is no opportunity for the ‘poor wee soul’ who worked so hard and was delighted to get her Intermediate One in English. We all know a story like that. ‘At least she got something’ we might have said. At least she got something. And what a tragic indictment of an education system that is. At least she got something. The poor wee soul.
But we feel better about ourselves that the ‘poor wee soul’ can take her Intermediate One certificate away from school and consider herself more of a success than she might have been. Really? That we might conveniently forget that that same fifteen/sixteen year-old ‘poor wee soul’ was a poor wee soul when she was four or five and ten years in our education system did nothing to help her situation is nothing to celebrate, I’m afraid. It should be a reminder that our system changes nothing for those already up against it. That’s what we should be getting angry about. Not a sad, mournful glance back to the good old days of Intermediate One.
Change is always hard in education. I’m developing more grey hairs as I try and negotiate the new National exams. We should be having those conversations; those debates where we hold our educational and political masters to account for that mess. However, before we start to get our knickers in a twist about any exam at any level, can we please remember the reason we do this in the first place. It’s not to make the best of a bad situation. It’s not to ensure that at least the kids ‘get something’ from it. It’s to ensure a fair and equitable society for all, starting from the early years. We should be furious that there still are ‘poor wee souls’ at the end of their school lives not whether we can furnish them with meaningless bits of paper. Let’s get mad about the right things.