Ensuring Scotland’s young people get the qualifications they deserve in 2021: a head teacher’s perspective

May is always a hard month – of work assessment, study and worry over attainment in the cycle of a school year. In 2021, following a global pandemic, the challenge has been greater than usual. It is important to consider this pressure in the wider context of the COVID-recovery landscape, and for school leaders to consider the parameters and guidelines negotiated and set out by leaders of the teaching unions, professional associations, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Scottish Government. Within these guidelines we can pick out our respective roles and responsibilities to best understand the precise part we have to play in ensuring that the young people in our school attain qualifications that accurately and fairly reflect the learning they have gained across the course of the last (very disrupted) school session.

As headteachers, it is not enough to limit our understanding to that of our own role in delivering fair certification in our school: we also have to understand the roles (and the accompanying pressures that these roles bring) of our colleagues to ensure that we can lead them effectively. Teachers have to use all the time they have to support young people – readying them for assessments and taking on the significant burden of marking and moderating these assessments. To do this they must be confident in the standards and have completed the online SQA courses. Middle leaders must guide their teams, ensuring that comprehension of the standards is shared and can stand up to scrutiny.

School leaders must aim for integrous results at a national level, and for knowing they are based on demonstrated attainment. They must push for confidence in this while supporting their own team to engage in ongoing conversations with young people to help them to understand where they are in their journeys to positive attainment. The results received in June will then be in line with our young people’s expectations and respected by them, the SQA, parents and guardians, and society as a whole, as valid.

Genuine collegiality within schools and across schools is vital. School Leaders Scotland is there to support its members in forging this new path to an Alternative Model of Certification (ACM). I am humbled every day by the efforts of young people and their teachers at Peebles High School. The ACM brings with it a number of challenges, but we understand that these are challenges that we are facing together, and that we can reach out within our local authority and beyond to get the support we need. In other words: know your own role well and look outward for validation and support.

I know, as should other members of School Leaders Scotland, that I can pick up the phone and talk to General Secretary Jim Thewlis should I need some redirection or a reminder of the route. Confidence in our SQA co-ordinator, the extended school leadership team and my knowledge of the internal and external supports available allows me to devote some of my time to actively supporting young people in their wellbeing and our school community as a whole at this knotty point in the unspooling story of Scottish education. There may well be a debate on the future of the examination system in our country and a focus on the role schools should play in the measuring and certification of learning – but that debate is not for today or this term. Our current task is substantial, pressing and very important. Again, know your own role well – and be prepared to work with others to do the best we possibly can, together, for our candidates in 2021.

Campbell Wilson
Head Teacher, Peebles High School
Vice-President, School Leaders Scotland