SCHOOLS: Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills details update on the awarding of qualifications

By Shirley-Anne Somerville

I welcome this opportunity to provide an update on the awarding of qualifications this year.

It is a privilege, as well as a huge responsibility, to have returned to the portfolio at such a critical time for Scottish education. The exceptional level of collaboration in supporting our learners, particularly during the pandemic, has been striking. I am determined that such constructive engagement be maintained.

Ensuring that our young people are kept safe and are able to achieve fair and credible grades in spite of the most challenging of school years has been, and remains, this Government’s absolute priority. I take very seriously the anxiety and concern that some young people, parents and teachers have voiced about the approach that is being taken—an approach that I and key stakeholders across our system firmly believe to be the fairest possible for our young people, in the challenging circumstances that result from the pandemic.

In responding to the concerns that I have heard, my statement will restate key principles about the model, provide detail on the support that is available to learners, set out how this year’s appeals process will work to support learners, acknowledge work to safeguard opportunities for this year’s learners to progress to further and higher education, and provide an update concerning the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of the curriculum.

The disruption that has been generated by the Covid-19 pandemic has caused this year’s national 5, higher and advanced higher exams to be cancelled.

The national qualifications 2021 group was established in October 2020, with representatives of teachers, learners and parents working alongside local authorities, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Government to ensure that the hard work of learners can be fairly acknowledged. The group agreed and co-produced the model for this year, using its members’ insight and expertise. Education partners continue to support the approach.

Let me be clear about the assessment process itself. At the heart of the model are teachers’ and lecturers’ professional judgments, which are based on what learners have demonstrated that they have attained. Those judgments alone, based on learners’ work, will this year determine the grades that young people receive. Those grades will be based not on historical data or on use of an algorithm, but on what each individual learner has demonstrated that they know, understand and can do, through the work on which they have been assessed in school or college. That is the key difference this year, compared with what happened last year. My key message to reassure learners is this: your grades will be judged by your teachers, based on your work.

I am enormously grateful for the efforts of our teachers, lecturers and others in schools and colleges who are implementing the model in order to ensure fairness for all learners. To provide evidence of how the model is being implemented locally, Her Majesty’s inspectors of education today published a review of local authority quality-assurance processes. The key findings from the review provide independent evidence that the model is working well in practice, with local authority officers, headteachers, teachers and SQA co-ordinators having collaborated to ensure that young people’s efforts are appropriately recognised, and with local authorities having supported schools to implement the model to reflect their local contexts while working within a national framework.

Despite the best efforts, a very small number of learners who completed courses have over recent weeks, in particular, experienced significant disruption that has meant that they have been unable to complete their assessments. Contingency arrangements, on which the national qualifications 2021 group is publishing details today, are in place for later certification for that group.

I fully appreciate that there are people who disagree with the model that has been put in place. However, to them I say that teachers, learners, and parents and carers have been listened to, and that the model is the result of that. Awarding qualifications would always be challenging under the current circumstances, but we believe that the model that we have is the fairest solution in the interests of young people. That is not just my conclusion; it is that of the national qualifications 2021 group, too.

That is not to dismiss in any way the concerns and anxiety that have been expressed by some learners and parents who are experiencing implementation of the model at first hand. As a result, I am announcing today a package of support measures for those learners. Many of the supports are available now, and others will be added in the coming weeks. To date, we have provided more than £400 million in additional funding to local authorities to support schools to cope with and recover from the effects of Covid. That includes more digital devices, additional staffing and wider support.

We have continued to support schools and local authorities to deliver their vital role in supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. However, we recognise that young people might need further support, so a letter will be sent to the home address of every learner who is taking national qualifications, outlining the support that is available and providing links to online resources and helpline numbers.

Learners may well have questions regarding their progression beyond school. For those who will continue within education, the SQA, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and college and university advice lines will be there to provide support. Learners who are moving into employment can draw support from Skills Development Scotland’s advisers. We are also working with YoungScot, whose people will, as experts in successfully communicating with learners, promote the support that is available, through their social media feeds and website.

Every effort has been made to ensure that the hard work of learners is fairly acknowledged in the first instance, with learners getting the right result first time, but the appeals process is an important final stage in the certification process. The SQA will today publish details of that process. I confirm that the approach will, for the first time, include a direct right of appeal for learners, which I am sure will be welcomed by learners and their representatives.

It is right that in these exceptional times, there is, for those who consider that they have not received the right result, a broad mechanism through which to appeal, and that the mechanism is free at the point of use. To ensure fairness and credibility, the grounds for appeal are disagreement with the centre’s quality-assured academic judgment, contested administrative or procedural error within the SQA or the examining centre, and appeals that are related to the Equality Act 2010, including on assessment arrangements.

Education stakeholders have been clear that demonstrated attainment is a key principle in ensuring the credibility and fairness of qualifications. Appeal decisions will therefore be evidence based and symmetric, which means that grades can move down, move up or stay the same, depending on the review of the evidence.

I recognise that some stakeholders are not supportive of that position and seek an approach in which grades cannot go down. Although I am sympathetic to the position of learners this year, awards must ultimately be based on the actual attainment of pupils. That means that the subject specialist who looks at an appeal must be able to give their true judgment of a pupil’s attainment and to move the grade in line with the evidence. In that way, the appeals system will be fair, consistent and credible.

Without symmetry, there would not be a full and fair review of the evidence. That could be perceived as being unfair to other learners and could raise questions about the credibility of this year’s qualifications. In adopting a symmetrical approach to appeals, judgments at appeal will be made based only on an individual learners’ work, not on an algorithm or the school’s past performance. Although formal processing of appeals will not start until learners have received their results on 10 August, learners will be able to indicate their intention to appeal from late June, when provisional results are submitted. Support will be in place for learners over the period.

Our learners also need reassurance that, having received their grades, those who wish to continue their learner journey will be able to do so. We understand that the changes to the SQA process last year and this year might impact on students who are looking to undertake courses in Scotland’s colleges and universities in the new academic year. We will, via the Scottish Funding Council, continue to provide additional support to our institutions to ensure that students are able to take up places that they would not have secured without additional places being made available.

In 2020-21, the SFC provided universities with an additional 1,297 places for students who had been impacted by the SQA changes. In 2021-22, we will continue to fund those places while also having made provision for more additional places—currently estimated to be around 2,500—for new students. Colleges have also been supported to deliver additional flexibility within their courses.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for our education system. It has sparked debate about the future of assessment and qualifications and about the best way to recognise learners’ achievements and equip them with the skills that they require to succeed on whatever path they choose.

Members will be aware that we extended the remit of the OECD’s review—to analysis of Scotland’s approach to assessment and qualifications and to development of options to enhance our approach. That work is on-going and will be published by the OECD in early autumn. However, I confirm that the OECD will publish its main report on the review of curriculum for excellence before then, on 21 June 2021. I look forward to discussing its findings with Parliament before the summer recess.

I relish the prospect of exploring a wide range of reform opportunities that will further improve Scottish education, but my immediate focus remains on ensuring that we do right by all the learners who are taking national qualifications this year. I reassure Parliament that everything is being done to ensure that the hard work of learners is recognised fairly, at a time that will, naturally, be anxious and stressful for many learners and their families. I ask members to acknowledge the merits of the approach that is being taken and to play their part in reassuring and supporting learners during these challenging times.

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