School exam results don't tell the whole story of education

School exam results don't tell the whole story of education
2019-04-18

Neil McLennan, Senior Lecturer and Director of Leadership Programmes at the University of Aberdeen, writes about how education is about much more than exams.

The Times has been criticised for producing school league tables in Scotland. The debate ranges from schools needing to be held to account to a need for greater contextual understanding of schools.

Alas, school exam results only measure one aspect of education. Education is about much more than exams. Yes, education should be a vehicle for knowledge transfer and academic attainment. However, increasingly schools are being challenged to upskill students for life and prepare them with employment skills. Exams measure work skills to some extent, albeit not well.

Positive destinations — where pupils continue their education, enter training or get a job — were used as the benchmark for success. Yet initial school-leaver destinations do not always secure long-term employment. Employability is not valued in the same way as exam performance in the eyes of parents or school inspectors.

Education fills two other purposes beyond knowledge transfer and skill development. A sound education should support students’ sense of self, their self-actualisation, their mental health and “being” as individuals.

Furthermore, bringing individuals together into cohesive communities is a vital part of education. Education supports the ability to work in groups in classrooms, across a school community, promotes wider community cohesion and global citizenship. Students must feel part of, and be able to engage meaningfully with, something bigger.

And so, when newspapers next publish school exam results, can editors also publish employment results, youth mental health statistics, juvenile crime statistics and community engagement statistics?

And can we publish three to five-year trends? Only then will we have a more nuanced picture of what education is providing. It is complex. However, that complexity needs broad evidence.

Some have concurred that exam results are not the only thing schools provide. Ironically, in defence of exam performance, some highlighted examples of socio-economically “poorer” students, with statistically low chances of success, achieving outstanding examination results. This highlights how we do still value exam results.

Sadly, these are outliers. The question remains: how did they get positive results? Were they supported to achieve success or did individual hard work pay off?

We still have much to learn on excellence, equity, improvement and the purpose of education.

This article first appeared as a ‘Thunderer’ column in the Times on April 18th, 2019.

Published by News, University of Aberdeen

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