Scotland’s education watchdog has been accused of allowing inequity to be “hardwired into the system” following revelations that a paid-for consultancy service is dominated by private schools.

In the last five years more than half of special performance reports by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to boost exam passes were bought by private schools. Each analysis of students’ work and exam papers for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses can cost up to £929.

Critics point out that private schools are wealthier than state schools, and better able to afford the detailed investigations. The SQA, however, stressed that the service is “a very small part” of the help it offers.

The reports, produced by senior examiners, are intended to identify specific weaknesses in students’ work and help improve grades in subsequent years. The SQA says that the intention is to “help centres ensure that they are preparing candidates for course assessment in the most appropriate way.”

Revealed: the narrowing options at secondary schools in poorer areas

Data released under freedom of information law reveals that 30 performance reports were issued to 21 schools and colleges by the SQA between 2013-14 and 2017-18.

Seventeen of the reports (56 per cent) were bought by private schools. These included Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow, High School of Glasgow and Glasgow Academy, as well as George Heriot’s and George Watson’s in Edinburgh, Albyn School in Aberdeen and High School of Dundee.

Eight reports (27 per cent) were purchased by state schools and five (17 per cent) by further education colleges. Of the nine reports produced in 2018, just one was for a state school, two were for colleges and the remaining six were for private schools.

Between 2014 and 2018 no state school or college purchased a performance report for an Advanced Higher course.

The Ferret asked the SQA for details of performance reports over the last five years. The SQA initially released the number of reports, but twice refused to reveal the names of the schools and colleges involved.

After an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, the SQA relented and released the names.

The private schools that bought exam help

Private SchoolCostLevel Year
Albyn School£494Higher2016
Albyn School£494Advanced Higher2016
Albyn School£494Advanced Higher2016
Albyn School£494Advanced Higher2016
Albyn School£674National 52015
Albyn School£494National 52015
George Watson's College£494Higher2018
George Watson's College£674Advanced Higher2016
The Glasgow Academy£494National 52017
The Glasgow Academy£674National 52014
Hamilton College£494National 52018
Hamilton College£494Higher2017
Hutchesons' Grammar£929Higher2018
George Heriot's School£929National 52015
High School of Dundee£674Higher2018
Dollar Academy£674Advanced Higher2018
The High School of Glasgow£494Higher2018
Source: Scottish Qualifications Authority

The Scottish Qualifications Authority is an executive non-departmental public body, sometimes known as an arms-length public body or quango, which receives annual funding from, and has its annual budget approved by, the Scottish Government. In 2018-19 SQA was given a total of £33.9 million by the government.

Charges for performance reports are levied depending on the number of exam components being analysed and the size of the student sample used. Standard reports, which sample 20 students and focus on a single component, cost £494.

The cost increases to £674 if two components are considered. Schools can also request that the sample size is increased to 30, in which case reports cost £659 for one component and £929 for two.

The SQA insists that it does not profit from this service, and that charges are simply to “recover the cost of the senior SQA examiner’s time.”

Albyn School in Aberdeen, which charges more than £14,000 per year for secondary school fees, bought more reports than any other centre. It paid out a total of £3,144 for six reports, two in 2015 and four in 2016.

In 2018 the highest spend was by Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow, which bought an extended report on two components of the Higher Modern Studies course for £929. George Watson’s College in Edinburgh paid £674 to improve Advanced Higher drama in 2016, while George Heriot’s School paid £929 on National 5 art and design in 2015.

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private schools
Hutchesons' Grammar School, Glasgow

Gary Walsh, an education writer and researcher at the University of Glasgow, told The Ferret that ongoing work to tackle inequalities and narrow the attainment gap can only succeed “if the education system itself is inclusive and fair”. This means that inequalities which are “built into the system” must be addressed, he argued.

“In the case of SQA performance reports it appears that direct support from the SQA can effectively be bought for certain pupils, and that this tailored service is currently creating a disproportionate advantage for pupils in private schools who are better placed than state schools to be able to pay for it.”

Walsh added: “This is clearly an example of inequity being hardwired into the system. It is concerning that this appears to have been in place for at least five years but it is especially concerning that the SQA failed to identify or address the issue in that time, given the clear and consistent pattern of private schools dominating the use of the service.”

These concerns were echoed by Neil McLennan, a senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, who has researched equity in education. “During an alleged era of equity and empowerment these findings are revealing,” he said.

“One might question whether Scottish education is free for all and what the costs of improvement are? Should there even be a cost for such a service from a public service? The imbalance of those using this service needs further investigation and it opens up wider questions about how the Scottish education system operates.”

Scottish Labour spokesperson, Iain Gray MSP, thought the latest revelations were “yet another example of pupils with the greatest educational advantages anyway using financial clout to gain even more advantage.”

He said: “We already know that the SQA’s abolition of exam appeals and charging for marking reviews means pupils at private schools are far more likely to have their marks reconsidered, and now we know those schools are buying what is really help from the SQA in maximising exam performance.”

Gray accused Scottish ministers of not caring about systematic inequities. “As if the system did not already favour these privileged schools and pupils enough, the SQA are guilty of making it worse,” he added.

Calls to reform key school qualifications as pupils fail to progress

The Scottish Qualifications Authority did not directly address the dominance of private schools. “Performance reports are available to all SQA centres,” said a spokesperson.

“The volume of reports in relation to the number of centres is very low, and these reports represent a very small part of our extensive support. We would always encourage SQA centres to take advantage of the wide range of free-to-use resources produced by our understanding standards programme which include free-to-attend events, webinars, and audio resources that are designed to support centres and practitioners with their understanding of national assessment standards.

The SQA spokesperson added: “There are significant online resources to assist teachers in gaining a comprehensive understanding of marking guidelines. SQA also produces NQ Course Reports which make a number of observations on performance and centres should also consider these.”

The Scottish Government also highlighted the wide range of free resources available from the SQA to support schools and colleges. “Performance reports are an additional chargeable service,” said a government spokesperson.

“As an arm’s length public body, this is an operational matter for SQA. The standard approach to setting charges for public services is full cost recovery.”

A version of the spreadsheet released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority can be downloaded here.

Photo of Hutchesons’ Grammar School thanks to Twospoonfuls via CC BY-SA 3.0. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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