“Answer the Question” – School Exams in Scotland

 This article, written by Fiona Laing, Official Publications Curator, National Library of Scotland, first appeared in  K&IM Refer 35(3) Autumn 2019

The Scottish School Exam Papers Project has developed and grown over the last five years in ways that I could never have anticipated at the outset. The project was cited in the nominations for two awards that I received over the summer: CILIP Scotland’s Library and Information Professional of the Year, and the Government Information Group’s Life Time Achievement Award. It was also specifically mentioned in the feedback I received when gaining my CILIP Fellowship in September.

The project began as potential partnership between the Institute of Education (IoE) and the National Library of Scotland to collaborate in a funding bid to the Wellcome Trust to digitise school exam papers for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. It ended up however, in a quite different guise four years later with the National Library independently producing a web feature that included its digitised early Scottish schools exam papers, alongside some creative interpretation of that content. It is a great example of setting out to deliver one project and ending up with something quite different but equally brilliant.

The original partnership with the IoE would have allowed researchers to see the development of the teaching of the STEM subjects over time, and with the addition of the Scottish content, comparisons could have been made between the two countries education systems. The National Library of Scotland gained the full support of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) for the project and signed a collaboration agreement with IoE in the summer of 2015. Unfortunately, the initial bid was unsuccessful and was resubmitted later that year, only to fail once more.
Having gained permission from the SQA to digitise the Scottish school exam papers, the National Library decided to proceed with the digitisation of its own content. It is still my hope that at some point in the future we will be able to combine this content with the English education exams papers from the IoE, and achieve a similar outcome to the one we had initially hoped for.

The digitised papers cover the first Leavers Certificate in 1888 (which was published as a Parliamentary Paper) up to the Scottish Certification of Education exams in 1963. In 2017, the papers were made freely available on the Library’s Digital Gallery. In 2018, the National Library decided to look at how it could improve engagement with its Digital Gallery content. A cross library group was established and given the task of producing, in 12 weeks, something more engaging with one of its digitised collections. I was delighted when the Exams site was selected for the project. Whilst the Digital Gallery pages gave the full text of the Exam papers by year and OCRing allowed full searchability, it lacked context and anything that might answer the question “why would I would be interested in looking at these?” By the addition of a short video interview with Professor Patterson of Edinburgh University and a time line of events in Scottish education, we were able to demonstrate how these papers showed the development of Scottish education during this period. For example, they highlight the increased accessibility to the exams by both sexes as well as the increased range of subjects. The exams now gave pupils an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities, especially for girls; and whilst the subjects may not have changed much, the titles have. What we now call history and geography and modern studies, the study of politics, was all part of the English exam.

Most people will have had to sit exams of one sort or another during their lifetime; however they are not often looked back on with joyful reflection. The project group explored the idea that the papers could be used as a source of inspiration rather that for the purpose of testing abilities. This took the project off in a completely different direction. The Library advertised through Creative Scotland for artists to produce creative responses to the exam papers. It awarded seven bursaries of £1,000 each. Although we had a tight deadline for applications, we were overwhelmed by the responses from across Scotland. It was very difficult to select just seven pieces. The final submissions can be viewed alongside the digital content and the contextual information. The Resits include a punk rock group, a ballet company, some beautiful art work, choral music and contemporary dance, an amazing and diverse mix.

‘Crow’ Jules Bradbury. Art response to 1937 Day School Certificate English comprehension exam
‘Among the pervading grace and lightness of spring’ Thomas Keyes. Art response to 1937 Day School Certificate English comprehension exam.

This project demonstrates how a small but rich collection of material can be used in many different ways and by different user groups. This was certainly not what I had anticipated when I first embarked on the project with the Institute of Education five years earlier. It wasn’t all plain sailing of course. Keeping the project alive took energy and enthusiasm, but I believed that it was a worthwhile project from the start. I spoke about it to anyone who would listen, in my own organisation and beyond. The final product surpassed my expectations and the feedback that we received was hugely positive.

In 2019, the exam papers content was made available on the Library’s new Data Foundry. This presents Library collections as data in a machine-readable format, widening the scope for digital research and analysis. This will allow researchers to examine this collection in yet another way, purely as text.

In 2020, the remainder of our Scottish School Exam papers collection will be added to our Digital Gallery and Data Foundry, and I am excited to see what future developments will emerge from the use of this resource.

 

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