Tory leader Douglas Ross and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. – locked in battle over future of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

By Bill Heaney

Parents, politicians and pupils are deeply concerned about the past performance and future plans for the Scottish Qualifications Authority and would like to see it scrapped for it pathetic performance during the current coronavirus pandemic.

The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is not one of them, however, and told MSPs during Question Timne at Holyrood today that she has full confidence in the SQA.

She told the Holyrood parliament: “Yes, I do. On this year’s qualifications, it is important that I and the Government recognise, first of all, that this is a really anxious and difficult time for pupils—and, indeed, their parents—across the country. It is really important that we and the SQA continue to listen. We are doing our utmost to continue to deliver fair grades in what are very difficult circumstances.

“If there are further questions on the issue today, I will try to answer them all as clearly as possible, because scrutiny and understanding are important. However, I will try to stay away from partisan politics, not least because many of the arrangements that we are putting in place are very similar to those that are being put in place in England and in Wales under Governments of different parties. That reflects the fact that this is a difficult situation.

“In setting that important context as we go—as I am sure that we will—into the detail, I can perhaps do no better than quote Jim Thewliss, the general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, who said:

‘The system that replaced the exams was never going to be perfect but all the way along no one has come up with a better way of doing it than the alternative certification model.’

“This is a difficult set of circumstances, but the Government continues to do all that we can to support pupils in these difficult times. That approach will very much continue.”

However, speaking by zoom from an Edinburgh hotel room, Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who has been quarantined following a meeting with a fellow Tory from the Scottish Office, told her: “The First Minister said that she has full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

“Her answer will not be shared by the tens of thousands of pupils and parents across Scotland who were so badly let down by the SQA and its exam grade disaster last year.

“It will also not be shared by the thousands more who are facing what looks like another year of grades chaos and confusion.”

Last night, Leon Cameron of Glasgow Youth Council said: “We are extremely angry at the people with authority—the Scottish Government, the SQA—that they keep saying that everything is ok, when it is not. They are clearly in denial over this issue.”

He added: “We have been put through hell.”

Mr Ross added: “The First Minister said that she would answer all questions on the issue clearly. Does she agree with Leon Cameron that her Government and the SQA are in denial?”

The First Minister said she did not agree with that. 

She added: ” It is my duty to persuade young people and their parents across the country that although no Government can take away all the impacts on our young people of a global pandemic, this Government—working with teachers, local authorities, representatives of pupils and parents and, of course, the SQA—is doing everything that we can, in a highly challenging set of circumstances, to deliver fairness for pupils. That work will continue.

“The alternative certification model was developed by the national qualifications group, which brought together teacher representatives, parents and pupils. We are often asked, rightly, to listen to teachers. The Educational Institute of Scotland said that the model gives pupils  ‘the best opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned’.

“I and the Government will continue to listen to young people. That is why, for example, the SQA has put in place an appeals process that gives every young person a direct right of appeal, free of charge.

“There have been some very difficult decisions to take—for example, on whether to have a no-detriment appeal system or a symmetrical appeal system. The SQA has proposed a symmetrical system, which is the same as in England and Wales.

“We are listening carefully to the concern that has been raised about the specific grounds of appeal and the fact that there is no ground for appeal that takes account of exceptional personal circumstances. The reason for that is that we do not think that a young person who has suffered exceptional circumstances should have to rely on an appeal. That is why an exceptional circumstances arrangement has been built into the model. Therefore, if somebody—because of, for example, a bereavement—cannot put forward assessment by the date in June, they will have a window of time until September to do so.

“We continue to work to take account of the concerns and to put in place the best possible arrangements in a highly imperfect set of circumstances. I take very seriously the responsibility that we have as a Government to listen, on an on-going basis, to young people. For example, this year, one of the key changes from last year’s unacceptable situation is that grades will be based on teacher judgment, informed by the work of pupils, not on algorithms, statistical models or historical performance of schools. Important changes have been made, and we continue to work hard with everyone in the education system to make sure that concerns are properly addressed.

Douglas Ross replied:So the First Minister will not agree with young people. Instead, she will—in her words—try to explain to them and ‘persuade’ them that they are wrong. That is absolutely appalling from a First Minister who is unwilling to listen to criticisms of her Government and its handling of this fiasco from the young people who have been most affected.

“Last summer, it took a week before the Scottish National Party finally admitted that its grading system was broken and made a U-turn. This year’s children should not have to go through the same issues all over again. Swinney is out, Somerville is in, but it is the same old shambles. The SNP Government needs to learn from its mistakes but, instead, it is determined just to repeat them.”

“On the threat of downgrading, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland has said that it is an unnecessary and disempowering barrier to young people.

“That concern will be echoed in homes and classrooms right across Scotland. Is the First Minister seriously going to defend an appeal system that risks pupils receiving lower grades and which demands that they gamble on their future?”

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