Why we need to make the SQA listen to teachers

A culture change must be forced upon Scotland's national qualifications body, says teacher Chris Noble
4th November 2020, 12:36pm
Chris Noble


Why we need to make the SQA listen to teachers

To Make Sqa Listen To Teachers We Need Legislation, Says This Teacher

I have a tendency to look for the root of a problem - it is a curse that goes along with being a physics teacher. Over the past two months of online discussions about the future of exams in Scotland, I've written, rewritten and scrapped at least five diatribes on exams in Scotland and what we could do to make them better. However, I have come to the realisation that these were all window dressing: to make lasting long-term change in how we assess and accredit learning, we need to change the system.

But not necessarily the exam system itself - although I would argue that it should be changed - as bigger priorities are the system and rules of how qualifications are set. And this is where, for me, the problem lies.

The Priestley report into the 2020 "algorithm fiasco" was altogether damning of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Yet the SQA admitted that it felt it had done nothing wrong. This feeds a perception of the corporate culture at the SQA being one of aggrieved, sometimes even spiteful, omnipotent lords of education whose motives are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. This arrogance can be seen in its frequent missing of deadlines and tendency to publish vital materials and information months after it was actually needed.

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This is perhaps shocking, but not overly surprising. The SQA is held to little or no account for its failings. Not one member of the board or senior person at SQA has resigned or faced any consequences. Why would they? There is perhaps only one person the SQA needs to keep happy - the education secretary, John Swinney. Any system of power that relies on keeping so few individuals on your good side is a recipe for disaster, corruption and incompetence by its very nature (in political science this is known as "selectorate theory").

Holding the SQA to account

So the need for change, I feel, is not so much about what we should do with exams themselves but far more about how we can hold the SQA to account. If we get it right, the system itself will encourage better decision making and improvements for decades. As I see it, the SQA should be held to account by three broad groups: the people, teachers and experts.

The people already have a form of educational oversight - the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee. It can (and has) called upon the SQA to testify before its members, but lacks any form of sanction against the SQA if it, say, misses a vital deadline or breaks a promise made to the  committee.

Part one of my proposal, then, would be to legislate via an act of Parliament to transfer sufficient powers to the committee, so that it is able to demand the resignation of SQA executive officers if necessary. In this way, the SQA would have to keep the committee happy and its actions would be more fully open to public scrutiny.

Let's also consider that teachers have two main forms of representation: their unions and the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS). If the SQA had to get approval from these bodies before implementing changes, it would be forced to consider the reaction of teachers to its ideas.

Lastly, there are the experts. University courses are accredited by a wide variety of bodies depending on the subject. These bodies are already familiar with and deeply involved in determining if courses and assessment are sufficiently rigorous and whether the course content is appropriate and relevant. Requiring the SQA to seek accreditation of its courses would force the SQA to consider carefully its content and approaches.

Combined, I am convinced these three changes would force a culture change within the SQA and compel it to make better decisions - not just for next year, but for all the years that lie ahead.

Chris Munro is a physics teacher in Scotland who tweets @BrotherMunro

This is a version of an article that first appeared on exam.scot, a new forum exploring the future of exams in Scotland. Join the discussion on its website or via #examscot on Twitter

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