Leading Scottish education figures have claimed the SQA’s alternative model of assessment for pupils taking National 5s and Highers this year has lost credibility. They warned the resulting breakdown in trust could “undermine the Scottish education system for years”.
Those raising concerns about the assessment of what have been branded “exams in disguise” include the principal of George Watson’s College one of the country’s most prestigious private schools. He has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Education laying out his view that the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) alternative model of assessment will undermine trust in grades awarded.
In an open letter, passed to The Ferret, George Watson’s Melvyn Roffe claims that the process failures by the SQA to standardise the process mean that the system for awarding grades is “inherently unfair”.
Meanwhile Ewan Aitken, a former education lead for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) who led Edinburgh City Council in the mid-2000s, said failures by the SQA had “destroyed” trust with schools.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University agreed that the alternative system – which pupils have said has led to them facing “a marathon of assessments” – was unfair and no longer credible.
The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) is calling on the Scottish Government to ensure teachers judgement about pupil grades will be accepted.
The SQA insists exams are not required. But guidelines for this year say that assessment must be based on “demonstrated attainment” without allowing teachers to use their discretion, as was the case last year. This, say schools, leaves them no choice but to carry out assessments.
Earlier this month The Ferret heard from Scottish high school pupils sitting National 5s and Highers who said “shambolic” mismanagement by the SQA left them facing “exams in disguise” at short notice. Many said they felt let down and “unfairly disadvantaged”.
Three high schools in Glasgow’s Covid-19 outbreak areas closed to senior pupils except for assessments. Those who are self-isolating will need to take alternative papers at a later date.
On 23 May the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, which represents 6500 high school teachers, called on the Cabinet Secretary for Education to step in and stop “the exams debacle” by making sure pupils’ grades are based on teacher judgement.
This week Roffe added his voice to growing clamour. In a lengthy letter to the Shirley-Anne Somerville, who was appointed by the First Minister as education secretary last week, the principle of the fee paying George Watson’s said he wanted to “put on record” concerns about the “risk to the credibility of the award of National Qualifications this August”.
The letter is also published on Exam Scot, a campaign site calling for debate about the exam system.
He says public health risks of sitting exams should have been considered alongside the risk to the fairness of the qualifications process due to “variable learning loss due to school closures and self-isolation”.
The decision to hold multiple assessments regardless only took away more teaching time, he added.
“By now, it is obvious that the impact of variable learning loss is undermining the credibility of this year’s award of SQA qualifications and none of the measures taken by SQA have addressed it in a way that safeguards the reliability of standards,” he wrote.
“From the outset there was no attempt by SQA to standardise the approach across subjects. The result was a set of provisions which caused confusion and were inherently unfair.”
He also criticised the lack of action to avoid papers being accessed by pupils online, saying there was “no meaningful method of maintaining the integrity of the material in an age of social media”. Many pupils were able to view these on platforms such as TikTok and Discord.
Ultimately, he adds, the process has caused more work for teachers and caused the young people “whose futures depend on the reliability and credibility of the qualifications awarded by SQA uncertainty, inconsistency and anxiety”.
Professor Lindsay Paterson said he agreed with Roffe. “The present situation is deeply unfair, entirely because of the failure of the SQA to develop a credible model for this year,” he added.
The situation was “even more unfair” for pupils in Glasgow and Moray, he added, where restrictions on contact have been maintained for longer than in other areas.
Paterson continued: “Teachers and schools are definitely not to blame – they have been merely trying to follow the often self-contradictory instructions from the SQA.” He claimed the SQA shared blame with the Scottish Government’s education recovery group.
Ewan Aitken – formerly the leader of Edinburgh City Council and COSLA’s education spokesman from 2003 to 2006 – said he could no longer remain silent.
“There has been a fundamental breakdown of trust between the SQA and schools that could undermine Scottish education for years,” he told The Ferret.
“The SQA is telling teachers: ‘We don’t believe your judgement is adequate’. That attitude is the reason for this breakdown and it’s going to take years to heal.
“Meanwhile there are young people whose educational start is screwed.
“This is the second cohort of young people who find themselves here. Frankly the fact that even worse mistakes have been made this time round is a scandal.
“Young people find themselves in a position where they are caught between a profession who have been undermined and a regulator trying to deliver by command and control. It’s a dangerous mixture and it will seriously impact on their willingness to engage.”
Aitken previously condemned the SQA in 2004 when he accused the quango of “holding councils to ransom” over plans to raise exam fees, resulting in a Scotland-wide bill of £5m. The organisation was forced to back down.
He claimed that similar action was now needed to force it to U-turn. “You build a nation on its education system,” he added. “And we can’t believe in a Scotland fit for the 21st century if we can’t get this right.”
A survey by the SSTA, which got 1,274 responses, supported a picture of over-worked teachers and stressed pupils.
Only 19 per cent of teachers said that they considered the alternative assessment model “fair and reasonable” and 80 per cent said they had struggled to gather evidence to ensure pupils were given the grades they deserved. Only just over a third – 35 per cent – said that they had been able to do so.
Meanwhile nine out of ten said some of their pupils had taken time off due to illness, with one in eight claiming they had pupils who had missed school due to stress. The vast majority of teachers reported the system had added substantially to their workload and the pressure on them.
Seamus Searson, general secretary of the SSTA, said if the new system had been in place from August 2020 it would have been “manageable”.
“The current approach was never going to work in the face of the extended school closures from January,” he added.
“We’re seriously concerned about the number of pupils who haven’t been able to produce the evidence they need to get the grades that they actually deserve.”
He claimed the solution was for the SQA to drop its demand for ‘demonstrated attainment’ – proof needed for grades to be awarded – and respect teachers’ expertise. “For results to be fair and credible, teachers need to be able to use their professional judgement to overrule the paperwork where they know it doesn’t provide a fair reflection of their students’ abilities,” he said.
“It is essential that the new minister intervenes, listens to teachers, and ensures that pupils do not lose out.”
A spokesperson for the SQA said it had reduced the amount of evidence required – with quality preferred over quantity. “We fully appreciate that this is a challenging time for learners across Scotland,” they added.
“The National Qualifications 2021 group, has been clear that there is no requirement to replicate a full formal exam or prelim diet this year and that results need to be based on demonstrated attainment by assessment in a flexible way to suit local circumstances.”
The organisation had provided “a flexible and consistent framework for schools and colleges this year”, they insisted.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The National Qualifications 2021 Group, which includes representation from teachers, parents and young people, developed this year’s Alternative Certification Model. They have been clear that the model has the flexibility to ensure that, as far as possible, there is maximum opportunity for learners to undertake the required learning and be given the best chance to succeed in their course assessments.
“We asked the SQA to review their appeals system from 2021 to ensure it best meets the needs of young people. They carried out a public consultation, and a response to that is expected to be set out soon.”
Melvyn Roffe’s letter in full
Cover image thanks to Istock/andresr