The poverty gap, attainment and certification


In the debate about the gap between poor pupils and their peers, we must remember that attainment and certification are different things. Alex Wood explains.

A speaker at a recent educational conference suggested that the primary task for schools in challenging injustice was to reduce the gap between the attainment levels of our most affluent children and our poorest. We need to provide the motivation, confidence, knowledge and skills which our poorest children lack if we are to boost their academic outputs.

I am certain that almost every teacher is committed to raising attainment. In particular teachers in schools serving our poorest communities, as I was for most of my career, want to raise the attainment of that cohort of young people which has historically failed to succeed. 

In the midst of that debate however, there are crucial issues unrecognised or even ignored. First, assessment and attainment are different things. One purpose of assessment may be to measure and mark attainment. Its primary purpose however is to measure the success of teaching and learning. Assessment exists to help the teacher and the learner complete their respective tasks more efficiently: a first principle, presently conveniently ignored.

Second, there is a difference between attainment and certification. Attainment is what a learner gains from the educational experience. One aspect of that may be certification, but certification is something different. It is a public acknowledgement of a level of attainment and, perhaps, more importantly, a sifting mechanism. Certification is how employers and further and higher educational institutions determine those they wish to select from the wider pool. One task for schools is to prepare young people for future destinations. When however the purpose of assessment becomes facilitating selection processes of HR departments and university entrance boards, we have lost perspective.

The same event saw a heated discussion over Scotland’s new National 4 qualification. National 4s, as distinct from National 5s and Highers, are designed primarily for those at the lower end of the academic spectrum and is awarded on the basis of continuous assessment of coursework and without a final exam. It is therefore perceived as a second-grade qualification, both by teachers and students.

There are two seemingly opposing arguments which can be made. One is that Standard Grades, introduced in Scotland in 1984, were perceived as not only introducing certification for all, but of validating, in the learners’ eyes, study and effort at all academic levels. Standard Grades were differentiated by grade outcome but at every grade they shared a common format of a mixture of continuous assessment and final examination. If we are going to certificate, then certificate all courses by a common examination procedure; otherwise those not examined lack status, in the wider world and among the learners themselves.

There is a different perspective. It is that we spend far too much time on formal assessment, exams and certificates. Our schools are therefore judged, almost exclusively, by performance in this area. It’s easy of course. What is measurable and quantifiable is always the simplest (though not necessarily the most meaningful) means of making rapid judgements. 

Countries, such as Finland, which have minimised formal assessment and certification have significantly improved morale and engagement in their schools. Perhaps instead of certification for all (the original battle-cry of the Standard Grade pioneers) we should have, within the years of compulsory schooling, certification for none. What is certain is that a mixed economy does not work. What this debate poses however is a bigger question about the very purpose of education, schooling and learning.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.



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