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More than just ABC

This opinion piece is over 1 year old

With pupil achievement still largely attributed to good exam results, it’s time to change what we recognise as success, writes Lucy Johnson

After an already turbulent couple of years, we find ourselves once again facing challenges that have a direct impact on children and young people.

As schools adjust, establish new routines and balance these ongoing challenges, an important consideration should be recognising and celebrating the successes of their pupils. Although many schools already do this, it feels that now more than ever, a heightened awareness for those of us working with children and young people would help pupils strengthen their confidence and build self-esteem.

This is especially relevant when talking about achievements in learning, namely exam results. Exams rely on good performance and recollection of data, facts or processes at a particular time on a particular day. Measuring success in this way is unrealistic for some pupils. It also doesn’t celebrate the diversity of success. It is in part, why a focus of the National Discussion on education - put forward by Scottish Government and Cosla - is on the review of qualifications and assessment.  

Among those voicing their opinions about change when celebrating the success of children and young people is Scotland’s national Inclusion Ambassadors. A group of young people with a range of additional support needs, they believe that there are more varied ways to measure success. While understanding that assessments and exams have their place, they argue there needs to be room for something more – especially for those whom success and achievement does not take the form of test scores.

An Inclusion Ambassador said: “We need to create positive stories about pupils with additional support needs rather than focus on the negatives.”

The group recognise that exams are typically used to form a gateway to the next stage of higher or further education. While exam results may play an important role in identifying the aptitude of pupils to gain entry to college or university, they have historically also limited opportunities to celebrate the successes of those who are not on this traditional path. This is especially true for those with additional support needs.

It is this thinking that led the Inclusion Ambassadors to launch their Success Looks Different Award. Developed as part of ongoing work around the Scottish Government’s Additional Support for Learning Implementation Plan, the award recognises and progresses the call in Angela Morgan’s independent review that success does not have to be measured solely by exam results. While hopeful of larger systematic change, the group recognises that individual schools have little influence on nationalised testing and that exams are generally an inevitable part of school. However, they also see an opportunity to create something to help schools share different and creative ways success can be celebrated.

An ambassador said: “We want to be seen as individuals with our set of unique strengths and skills.”

The awards opened in May for six weeks, encouraging schools to self-nominate and share evidence of how they are supporting and celebrating pupils with additional support needs. We wanted to see how schools were recognising success in other ways aside from just attainment levels. 

Across all entries we were heartened to see evidence of inclusion not just as a policy but as practice, ingrained and woven into the fabric of the schools. The level of creativity and innovation was also impressive – and a reminder of the enthusiasm and ingenuity of those working in our schools.

In September we announced our first ever winners. Of more than 40 entries across all age groups and all parts of the country – three winners were selected across primary and early years, secondary and special school provision. Each of the winners - as chosen by the Inclusion Ambassadors themselves - all demonstrated a particular commitment to celebrating individual pupil journeys, evidence of positive relationships between pupils, staff and peers, and a strong focus on children’s rights.

Braehead Primary School in Stirling was crowned winner of the Primary and Early Years category due to its support for pupils with additional support needs to become strong, capable leaders.

Secondary school winners, Clackmannanshire based Alva Academy, was commended for its knowledge and understanding of the range of needs of their pupils and ongoing, school-wide work to raise awareness and provide support.

The top accolade for the special school category was awarded to Cedarbank School, Livingstone for its individualised approach to celebrating the success of pupils.

This year's winners and runners up will be celebrated throughout the year and into next. We also aim to share the good practice from across all our entries to help school communities across Scotland reflect on their approaches to inclusion and how they celebrate the success of all their pupils. 

Celebrating all pupils within a school community helps build a more inclusive learning environment. It communicates the message that exam results are not the only way to mark achievement and that every pupil, and every pupil’s journey, matters. Because, in the words of one of the Inclusion Ambassadors: “if you don’t do anything about it, Inclusion is just a word.”

Lucy Johnson is senior communication and child rights officer for Enquire.

The Success Looks Different Awards was developed by the Inclusion Ambassadors and managed by Children in Scotland and Enquire. For more information on the awards and this years winners, visit: