Kezia Speaks on National 4 & 5 Examinations

Thursday, February 27th, 2014 @ 10:08AM

Kezia spoke yesterday in a debate on the National 4 and 5 exams, and what the well publicised problems could mean for people sitting exams this year. In her speech she put the concerns of the many thousands of parents and pupils to the Scottish Government. Unfortunately the SNP were able to defeat Scottish Labour’s calls for an action plan to fix the problems and an independent review to assess how the problems came about. The rest of the debate can be found here.


Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab): Until the cabinet secretary stood up, we had quite a constructive debate about the detail of curriculum for excellence and where we are at with the current exam diet.

Labour used its business time today to give voice to thousands of parents, pupils and teachers across Scotland who are going through an anxious and stressful time. Neil Bibby has already made the point that Labour has brought the issue to the chamber on several occasions and has been making these points for two years now. We do that because we want it to work. We want it to work.

I said “give voice” to the concerns of parents, pupils and teachers, because many of the speeches from Labour members have included the words of others: the words of third parties—parents, teachers and pupils—who are anxious about the future and anxious about the weeks ahead. I will quote directly from more such people in my summing up because it is important that we give voice to those concerns.

Before I do that, I commend teachers across the country for the job that they are doing under incredible pressure. They are doing the job and putting in all the extra hours because they care so deeply about their profession and about their responsibility to the children and young people whom they look after. They have devoted their lives to that. That is why, when I got an email yesterday from a principal teacher of social subjects, I was really quite distressed. The email reads:

“the situation re these new exams is frightening … I have taught for 31 years and I have never known a situation like this. Indeed I am thinking of leaving the profession because of the stress and pressure that delivering these new courses will bring … We are at our wits end … I think if parents really knew what was going on there would be a mass revolt.”

Those are the words of a principal teacher of a social subject in a high school. SNP back benchers can say that it is all fixed, that we have had reviews and that the EIS survey is out of date, but a principal teacher yesterday expressed serious concerns about their ability to deliver for pupils in their classroom, quite possibly right now studying for exams that are just six weeks away. It was very telling that not a single SNP back bencher took an intervention during the course of the debate.

We had a very quiet, tempered tone from the education minister at the start of the debate, only for Mike Russell to bluster in at the end. I say to Mark McDonald that, had he let me intervene, I would have encouraged him to look again at the five or six different quotations that Neil Bibby gave in his opening speech from teachers who are concerned about what is happening now. Perhaps Mark McDonald can look at the Official Report of the debate and then assess for himself whether he thinks that there is anything to worry about.

Mark McDonald also made a comparison between the standard grades and higher stills and what we have now. The standard grades and higher stills were introduced over ten years. We have sets of exams just now that are being introduced over two years. That is the difference. That is the problem that we are facing. That is why Larry Flanagan is left saying that

“we have not encountered as widespread anger and disappointment and frustration with the exams … as we are currently witnessing”.

Those are Larry Flanagan’s words.

George Adam is another member who did not take any interventions. We have a comment from a teacher in his constituency who says:

“The lack of planning, organisation and support given to teachers is a disgrace.”

That is a teacher in Mr Adam’s constituency, who has nothing to say except that everything is fine.

Mr FitzPatrick has just asked who runs the council. Of course, it has nothing to do with Alasdair Allan or Mike Russell: it is the fault of the council. There we go again. Mr FitzPatrick, where were you two hours ago? Now we know the blame game.

I say to Clare Adamson, another SNP member who failed to take any interventions, that Larry Flanagan used the words

“anger and disappointment and frustration”.

Those are not words that teachers use on a whim. Larry Flanagan has pointed out very clearly that teachers have serious concerns. Why are those serious concerns from committed professionals not being respected and rewarded with a review?

We welcome the £4.75 million funding package, but EIS has said that it is of course too late to make any impact on the national 4 and 5 curriculum and the exams that are six weeks away. I would welcome an acknowledgement from the Government that the additional money will in fact do nothing to help those who are facing national 4 and 5 exams.

I see that the cabinet secretary is sitting there shaking his head. If he would like to correct Labour members, and tell us that the £5 million will be helpful in the next six weeks, I would be willing to hear that.

I see that there is no response from the cabinet secretary.

I ask the cabinet secretary again, since he was so interested in putting statistical questions to Mr Bibby, how many people are studying national 5 qualifications in our colleges.

It appears that he does not know the answer to that. I phoned the SQA and Colleges Scotland this afternoon to try to get hold of those figures. Of course, until the end of March, we will not know the full numbers of people who are sitting national 4 and 5 exams. However, we get a different story when we phone the colleges.

The colleges know how many people are studying for national 5 qualifications because they are teaching them. At Edinburgh College, for example, 107 students are studying for national 5 qualifications. Can the cabinet secretary tell me how the additional £5 million will help those students in our colleges? Everything that the Government has to say is about supporting local authorities to support pupils in schools who are studying for national 4 and 5 qualifications. Yet again, colleges are left in the back seat and the cabinet secretary has nothing to say to them.

We are told that there is £1 million for textbooks, but yet again the EIS tells us that the money, when it is broken down on a per capita basis by school, is not enough to buy a single classroom a single set of textbooks for a subject.

The cabinet secretary is shaking his head again. Those are not my words, but the words of the head of the teaching union, who is telling him that there are not enough textbooks in our classrooms.

If members look at the SQA website today, they will see that the front page says, “Official SQA Past Papers”, under which bullet point 2 says:

“Practise on the real thing”.

That message is going to pupils just now. However, when they click on it, they get past papers for all the standard grades and highers. There is no link to a single national 4 or 5 past paper on the front page of the SQA website. [Interruption.] Yes, if members dig around the website they will eventually get to a past paper, but they need a national 5 in computing to find it. [Interruption.] For the benefit of the Official Report, I hear the cabinet secretary saying that that is absolutely pathetic. I quite agree: it is pathetic that a pupil in this country cannot go on the SQA website and see what type of exams they will be facing in six weeks’ time.

The Labour motion asks for two clear things. First, it calls for an action plan, which we believe could address the issues around practice papers and textbooks, and potentially avoid future industrial action, given that teachers are now saying, “If we are not prepared for highers, we will have to strike.”

Secondly, our motion calls for an independent review in 2014, because it is critical that we understand the relationship between the SQA, Education Scotland and the Scottish Government.

We cannot support what the Government is setting out today, and it is complacent in its approach to the new exams. We fully support curriculum for excellence and wish the students who are facing those exams in the next six weeks the very best of luck.

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