By Bill Heaney
Pupils and parents of children locked out of school for what now look like it’s going to be months on end are confused about exactly what’s going to happen when they come up for grading by the Qualification Authority.
Labour veteran Iain Gray MSP told the Scottish Parliament: “With exams having been cancelled, parents and pupils need absolute clarity about how they will be graded. Yesterday, the Scottish Qualifications Authority said: “Our moderation process … will include analyses of centres’ estimates and outcomes, prior attainment, progression statistics, and grade distributions.”
By “centres”, the SQA means, of course, schools or colleges—exam centres. He asked John Swinney “for the avoidance of doubt”, would he confirm that a pupil who is awarded a pass grade through their teacher’s judgment could subsequently be failed by the SQA, on the basis of their school’s performance in previous years’ exams?
SNP’s John Swinney and Labour MSP Jackie Baillie.
The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills replied: “It is important that all the factors that have been identified by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in respect of its exercising its moderation functions are taken into account.
“There will be moderation at different levels: in classrooms, in departments, in schools and by the SQA. Each step in that process is important in ensuring that we have confidence, across the country, that a robust approach is taken in relation to certification of qualifications this year.
“It will be the case that the SQA might increase or decrease a grade that is awarded. That is an essential element of the moderation process, and it is undertaken annually.”
Green MSP Andy Wightman asked: “In relation to the current exam diet, will pupils be informed of the grade that their teacher proposed be awarded to them in addition to the grade that the Scottish Qualifications Authority eventually issues?”
Will pupils be able to appeal their grade directly, even if their teacher and the SQA are in agreement?
Mr Swinney said: “The information about teacher judgment is given to an individual pupil is a matter for the individual school and the local authority concerned, because they are the ones who retain the data.
“The Government does not hold that data, so we do not have a locus to exercise a responsibility there. That is a matter for the school and the local authority.
As far as the issue of appeal is concerned, any pupil will be able to appeal the qualification that they are ultimately certificated by the SQA. I am pleased to say that a free appeals process will be available to any pupil as part of this year’s exam diet.”
LibDem MSP Beatrice Wishart asked: “When it comes to the awarding of qualifications and the moderation process, how will the system deal with situations in which pupils and teachers have recently changed schools and the effect of that with regard to teachers not knowing their pupils?”
Mr Swinney replied: “My sense is that there would have to be dialogue between the relevant teachers from the pupil’s current school and their previous school to enable the estimated grade to be submitted by the school at which the young person is currently registered as a pupil.
“However, given the level of operational detail to which this question relates, I think that I had better ask the chief examiner to write to her on it, and I will arrange for that to happen.”
The SNP’s Rona Mackay asked: “What work is being done to ensure that all pupils have the same opportunity to gain a place at university in this year’s admissions, regardless of their background?”
John Swinney told her: “The closure of the poverty-related attainment gap is the central theme of Government education policy, so it is clear that the period of educational disruption that we are going through is a matter of great concern.
“I want to ensure that every effort is made to close the poverty-related attainment gap and that every young person who is dealing with the impact of poverty on their life is able to achieve the support to which they are entitled.
“Through pupil equity funding and the Scottish attainment challenge, more than £180 million-worth of resources are directed directly to schools and relevant local authorities.
“We have told schools and local authorities that they have the freedom and flexibility to judge how best to use those resources to maximum effect.
“I want to make sure that, in the period of remote learning that we are currently going through, young people are directly supported by their schools and their needs are met.
“I know that, in different parts of the country, schools and local authorities are providing that support in a variety of ways.
“There will be practical issues. Some young people in poverty might not have access to digital connectivity, and I know that schools are working in a very focused way to overcome that, either through the distribution of devices or by enabling access to data, so that young people can continue their learning.”
The Education Secretary added: “A lot of practical work is under way to support young people in that context. Of course, when we are operating our education system in the more habitual fashion to which we have been accustomed, we will want to reinforce our efforts to close the poverty-related attainment gap as part of that work.
“Finally, and briefly, university access will hinge on the results that young people achieve, but our universities remain absolutely committed to the widening access agenda, on which they have made significant progress. The Government is committed to maintaining that progress.”
Meanwhile, on the subject of financial support for Higher and FE, Scotland’s universities face significant financial difficulties in the weeks and months ahead.
Given the loss of revenue from commercial activities and real uncertainty about the number of overseas students who will take up places next year, a financial black hole of £500 million is a real possibility.
Jackie Baillie, the MSP for Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and Helensburgh, urged the Government to provide “the financial support that the sector will so desperately need?”
Richard Lochhead, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, said there would be potential huge impacts on further and higher education in Scotland as a result of Covid-19. He added: “I have established a high-level response group comprising the university and college principals, other sector representatives, all our Government agencies, the unions and so on, so that we can steer the sectors through this crisis.
“We have already announced a £5.5 million package of support to address student hardship and to help students, who face a tough time at the moment.
“We are in regular contact with our United Kingdom counterparts to discuss what other support might be available at the UK level to help the UK’s universities, including Scotland’s universities, at this time.
“We are also in regular dialogue with the Scottish Funding Council, which, next week, will provide updated figures on the financial impact of the current situation on further and higher education.
“We are determined to support our universities and colleges to get through this, because of the huge challenges that they currently face.”
The biggest challenge for the universities, in particular, is the expected huge drop in the number of international students coming to Scotland, given that they represent a large slice of income for Scotland’s university sector.