Exam help bought by private schools under review by watchdog

Scotland’s exams watchdog is considering ending a paid-for consultancy designed to improve exam results after an investigation by The Ferret showed that it was mostly used by private schools.

Performance reports – detailed analyses of pupils’ exam performance written by Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) senior examiners – are designed to boost grades in subsequent years but can cost up to £929 per subject. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18 private schools bought 17 of the 30 performance reports – 56 per cent.

The SQA has now told a Holyrood committee that it is reviewing the need for performance reports by considering “what part, if any, they play” in the support it provides to schools and colleges.

Revealed: the private schools that buy in exam help from government body

Following a further freedom of information request, The Ferret can disclose that a further 14 performance reports were requested by nine schools and colleges in 2019. Nine of these were for private schools, four were for state schools and one was for a college.

Three independent schools – Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen, St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm, near Glasgow, and the Edinburgh Steiner School – bought reports for one subject. The High School of Glasgow asked for analysis of two subjects and Dollar Academy received reports for three subjects. As in previous years, no requests for advanced higher analysis were made by state schools.

Appearing on 22 January before the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, SQA’s chief executive, Fiona Robertson, revealed that the organisation is now considering ending the service.

Asked by Beatrice Wishart, the new Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, to comment on the fact that more than half of the reports issued were for private schools, Robertson told the committee: “We are considering the support that we will provide to centres during 2020-21, and we will look at performance reports in that context. We will look at what part, if any, they play in the wider context of the services that we provide.”

Pressed on whether she had any concerns about private schools’ dominance of the performance report service, Robertson stressed that it had only been used by a small number of schools. “It is legitimate for us to consider any supporting criteria that may be attached to a performance report and, given the small volume of performance reports, whether they should form part of the service in future,” she added.

“There are some issues that we will wish to consider in thinking about whether to continue with performance reports.”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson, Iain Gray MSP, said: “These latest figures simply confirm that performance reports are little more than a way for private schools to buy yet more advantage for their pupils sitting SQA exams.

“The SQA’s apparent plans to abolish them removes the inequality I suppose, but they might also think of how they could be provided to help local authority schools without the prohibitive cost of almost £1,000.”

An SQA spokesperson said: “We provide support to all centres through our understanding standards events, SQA co-ordinator events and materials that we produce for both teachers and learners in the wider system. Performance reports provide a very small part of that broader service.

“We are considering the support that we will provide to centres during 2020-21, and we will look at performance reports in that context. The SQA will continue to work with teachers, lecturers, schools and colleges to support them in the delivery of our qualifications.”

An updated version of the spreadsheets released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority can be downloaded here.

Photo: iStock/monkeybusinessimages.

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