Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The Hayward Report – A Maths Teacher’s Reaction – Bryn Jones

The Hayward report has now been published, and it makes some striking recommendations:

  • Scrap all exams before S5. This would mean there would be no exam at the end of studying National 5.
  • Have students work towards a Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SPA), made up of “programmes of learning” (normal classes like French, Maths, Art etc.), “A personal pathway” which considers extracurricular activities, and an ungraded project where students look into a topic in depth.

Assessment in Scotland is in need of radical reform. The Hayward report gets it spectacularly wrong.

The Current Context

We need to be honest about what assessment in mathematics looks like today. I’ll begin by talking about National 4. Students do not value it. Parents do not value it. It is the butt of jokes in staff rooms. Why?

To be awarded a National 4 in maths students need to pass “unit assessments”. But teachers are told exactly which questions will be asked in these assessments, and we have booklets of questions that are nearly identical the assessments for students to practice. Teachers have a massive incentive to teach to the test. What’s worse is that students don’t have to complete the tests in one go, they can complete them question by question, being spoon-fed information they don’t understand.

This way of teaching fails to help students understand the material and sets them up to fail when they progress to National 5. Ask any teacher “does National 4 prepare your students for National 5?” and just drink in their facial expression.

What strikes me most about National 4 though is its corrosive effect on the Broad General Education (BGE), which covers classes from S1-S3. There is a widespread problem in Scotland of “Assessment Banking.” This is a practice whereby BGE students are made to sit National assessments, so that evidence can be banked. Schools do this so that if a student stops attending school when they get into S4, the school will still have assessment evidence they can use to get them their National 4 qualification. This is a problem because instead of focusing on conceptual understanding we are just teaching students to pass specific questions. Some schools are losing a significant portion of BGE time, where deep understanding of the subject is meant to be developed, to pursue a qualification that actively undermines their chances of achieving at a higher level.

Teachers also don’t know how to assess students as being at Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) levels. There is a lack of understanding and guidance about what the CfE levels mean, which has resulted in many schools using National 3/4 assessments as their way of assigning levels. Because CfE levels are so wholly and meaningless, National levels are effectively all we have.

One of the motivating factors behind the Hayward Report is this idea that there is a disconnect between the Curriculum for Excellence and the senior phase. Hayward is suggesting that we make the senior phase more like CfE- are the writers of the review really not aware that CfE has failed? Are they not aware that National levels have usurped CfE ones?

Another aim of the proposals is to avoid “the two-term dash.” The suggestion is that there is so much material to cover for National 5 and Higher that teachers must rush through the course in the first two terms. In my subject, Maths, our curriculum is not full. We have a fraction of the material to cover for National 5 than English students have for their GCSEs. This two-term dash is caused by time lost during the precious BGE phase – there is no need to dash.

When you put pressure on teachers to have all students pass an assessment, you give teachers poor quality worksheets designed to aid spoon-feeding of students, and tell the teachers exactly what questions will be asked in the assessment – you kill all chances of learning, along with the motivation and dignity of students for whom these assessments were created.

Assessment in Scotland is in a terrible place, and the Hayward report calls for more of the same.

Bad Statistics

Education is Scotland is driven by bad statistics. Take the headline statistics for Numeracy and Literacy:

You could be forgiven for thinking that over 70% of school leavers achieved a National 5 in maths in recent years. But “SCQF Level 5” includes not only National 5 Maths and Apps, but also the “National 5 Numeracy unit.” The numeracy unit is similar to National 4- an assessment that teachers can see before students sit it. These statistics are largely meaningless- are students achieving a valued qualification or aren’t they? Is 70% good?

There has been a race to the bottom in Scotland, and schools have gone to extreme lengths to boost the numbers of students achieving National 4 and National 5 Numeracy. Cheating is part of the fabric of Scottish education. Students who have missed swaths of time at school come back, are spirited away to a quiet room, and miraculously have passed their unit assessments. 

It’s time that we start calling things out for what they are. Giving students multiple practice questions, nearly identical to the real test questions, is cheating. Assessing students question by question, so no thought from the student is needed, is cheating.

Councils and schools are addicted to boosting statistics that are largely irrelevant. A school’s core purpose should be serving its students and working in their interests. When we devalue a qualification by cheating, or pull a student out of lessons to pass a random unit with no understanding, just to give them a piece of paper valued by nobody… who exactly are we helping?

Listen to Teachers

Jenny Gilruth, the Education Secretary, announced that any reform will be paused until teachers have been consulted. That fact that Gilruth has called for more consultation with teachers is a clear sign the government are well aware there will be implementation issues. It’s also a tacit acceptance that teachers have not been properly consulted with up to this point. The issues are plain to see to those actually teaching on a day-to-day basis.

For me, the Hayward report comes across to me as naïve. In schools of 1500 students, with the behaviour issues, apathy and the relentless pressure for students to pass, the proposals aren’t workable. What is going to happen when some students refuse to engage in a project, but the council makes it clear everybody is meant to achieve a Scottish Diploma of Achievement?

I see a future where students have “project” on their timetables, and they turn up to be cajoled through a “project booklet” that’s impossible to fail at. The vicious cycle starts and projects become the new National 4- any meaning they aspired to have will be stripped out of them, a hoop to jump through.

External assessments are the fairest way of awarding qualifications. Properly set, they can encourage high quality teaching, rather than teaching to the test.

In my view we need more assessments not fewer. We need to return dignity to National 4 students by having external assessments brought back. I sympathise with the desire to take pressure off exams, and I would propose a modular assessment scheme- exams in December and May in S4, S5 and S6. The exams would be large enough to be meaningful assessments, but by having more of them pressure is taken of any particular exam.

Wouldn’t that be a better move than the Hayward recommendations?

It’s Time For Us to Say No

Scotland is sleepwalking into a disaster. If National 5 Maths is no longer externally assessed, it will become worthless. Worse still, students sitting Higher Maths and Higher Apps will be less prepared too.

What worries me as a teacher is I don’t get the sense that people understand the crisis we’re in now. Allow me to summarise:

– Teachers have no understanding about CfE levels, and so these are essentially meaningless.

– Cheating is a routine in Scottish schools, and so National 4 qualifications have become worthless.

We must repudiate the Hayward recommendations. A lot of teachers have expressed anger and fear upon seeing the report. I hope that one good thing can come from its publication: perhaps it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Bryn Jones is a Teacher of Mathematics in Fife