SQA’s failure to act on pupil warnings makes ‘mockery’ of child rights commitment

Secondary school pupils warned the Scottish Qualifications Authority in November 2020 that plans to compare 2021 grades to past results were “unfair” but their input was not acted upon.

At a series of SQA ‘learners’ panels’ they also raised concerns over the pressures of “over-assessment” on their mental health, a freedom of information request by The Ferret has revealed.

Pupils who took assessments under the alternative certification model (ACM) after the traditional exam diet was cancelled last year are currently awaiting their grades. Under this model teachers had to provide “demonstrable evidence” which led to wide-scale testing. Pupils said the assessments, often sat under test conditions, felt like “exams-in-disguise“.  

Last month the Scottish Government announced Scotland’s exams body was to be scrapped as part of the biggest overhaul of the nation’s education system in a decade. This is likely to result in major changes to the way pupils are assessed, according to teachers’ unions and educational experts.

The decision came after mounting criticism of the SQA from teachers, pupils, parents and politicians and followed the publication of a review of Scotland’s education system by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). The report said there was too much focus on exams in latter years.

Now fresh criticism has been levelled by pupils and politicians who claim the SQA’s failure to act on the fears of young people expressed at its learning panel events, makes “a mockery” of its claim to be committed to children’s rights. Campaigners have previously claimed its lack of appeals process was not compliant with UN human rights laws.

Notes provided by the SQA reveal that the qualifications authority held six “learner panels” between November 2020 and April 2021. They were attended online by pupils, and some involved Young Scot, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Carers Trust.

In November, panel members told the SQA that “they did not want body to compare 2021’s results with previous years” because they felt this would be “extremely unfair as this year is a completely different situation for learners”.

However despite this – and assurances by the SQA and government that 2021 results would be based purely on teachers’ professional judgements, as reported by The Ferret  – councils later said it was necessary to put in place a system to compare proposed results this year with grades from previous years.

Under the model, pupils’ grades are subject to so-called “local quality assurance procedures”. These are carried out by schools and colleges and, according to the SQA, are “in line with local authority quality assurance processes”.

Meaningfully engaging with young people on the issues that affect us, means not just speaking to us, but listening and acting on what we say.

Sophie Reid, MSYP for Girlguiding Scotland

The comparisons used excluded 2020 data when pass rates improved from 75 percent in 2019 to 89 per cent the following year. Asked to comment then the SQA said the use of historical data for “quality assurance” is needed “to ensure results are fair and credible”.

In response to concerns raised over learners panel views being ignored, however, a spokesman insisted grades were “not based on historical data or the use of an algorithm”. He said the SQA does not manage local the data comparison “quality” checking exercises.

The learner panel notes from November also show pupils worried that continuous assessment would lead to “a lot of pressure to be dealing with throughout the year which can lead to mental health issues”.

They highlighted the confusion of messaging from the exam body and called on the SQA to communicate directly with learners to ensure clarity.

This did not happen. Both issues were raised repeatedly by pupils who sat a “marathon of assessments” in May this year.

The notes show panel members also called for the SQA to “be able to show leniency towards learners” affected by issues like having to isolate, with this point being repeated in the December meeting when discussing appeals, and again at the January meeting.

The SQA said personal circumstances could not be taken into account when awarded grades or forthcoming appeals, with marks allocated only on demonstrable evidence of attainment.

It later brought in “a certification opportunity for learners who…had their learning and teaching unduly disadvantaged by severe disruption”. This includes medical conditions, bereavement, self-isolation, or shielding which prevented them completing all their evidence by the end of term. But critics said this can only be used in exceptional circumstances judged sufficiently “severe”.

The SQA said in its FoI response there were no notes from the March or April meetings, when assessments and appeal systems were discussed.

But notes were taken by the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP). They revealed panel members felt they were not being listened to about legitimate concerns such as assessments, communication, and appeals.

The notes said: “One MSYP mentioned that they had attended every learner panel raising issues being discussed in this panel and are frustrated that these have not been addressed and progress is slow. Other panel members agreed with this.” Others, it detailed, expressed disappointment that young people had provided answers that would have allowed the SQA to resolve issues had it taken action.

Sophie Reid, MSYP for Girlguiding Scotland, said young people were left feeling “frustrated” they had not been heard by the SQA.

She added: “Over the past year, I have joined many other MSYPs and young people in telling decision makers, publicly and privately, what we were concerned about in the exams process. For example, on appeals, we were clear that a no-detriment policy, and the recognition of exceptional circumstances were vital, and that using data from previous years would unfairly disadvantage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“However many young people have felt frustrated that our views haven’t been taken as seriously as they should have been, and these key policies were not put in place.

“Meaningfully engaging with young people on the issues that affect us, means not just speaking to us, but listening and acting on what we say. I really hope that the recently announced reforms to Scottish education provide an opportunity to reset priorities and to put children and young people’s rights at the centre of the education system, rather than on the periphery.”

Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer said the fact the qualifications authority had ignored its own learner panels “makes a mockery of the SQA’s commitment to respect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

He said: “I’ve experienced first-hand the SQA’s downright refusal to listen to the warnings they are given, particularly about their utterly misguided grading systems for 2020 and 2021.

“Sadly it doesn’t seem to matter whether its members of Parliament’s Education Committee, respected academics, the Children’s Commissioner or even young people themselves, bosses at the exams authority are determined not to listen.”

He claimed it was crucial that whatever organisation replaced the SQA replaced must “respect the experiences and advice of learners and teachers”.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Union (SSTU), agreed it was not surprising that pupils did not feel listened to. “Pupils and teachers both raised many of the key issues very early on and no action was taken,” he said.

“Teachers want the best for pupils and this could have been an opportunity to break the mould. The summer term should have been an exciting one without the burden of exams. Instead we ended up with an exam factory.

“The experience could have put a lot of [teenagers] off education entirely and we could lose a whole generation of young people who feel they don’t need that level of stress and pressure.

“The SQA system did not put the child at the centre. It just set out to justify its own existence. Teachers should have been allowed to use their professional judgement. But if that happens when it calls into question what is the purpose of the SQA.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson confirmed historical data was looked at as part of local quality assurance levels, but insisted there was “no place in the Alternative Certification Model (ACM), either at school, council or SQA level, for changing a grade because of a school’s past performance”.

They added: “Ministers sympathise with the challenges that learners have faced this year and recognise that some will have experienced further exceptional circumstances that may have impacted on their performance. The ACM has flexibility built in to allow teachers to take learners’ circumstances into account in the timing and nature of assessments to inform provisional grades.”

A spokesman for the SQA said: “As the Scottish Government has previously made clear, individual learner grades are not based on historical data or the use of an algorithm. The SQA does not manage local quality assurance processes.

“Any guidance suggesting that schools should consider doing a high level cross check with previous years’ grades is a way of checking, overall, the plausibility of sets of results and to help fairness in the approaches between centres. SQA will not change results except for any administration errors.”

It added that modifications had been made to qualifications including reducing assessed content.

Photo Credit: iStock/monkeybusinessimages

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