How to avoid a repeat of the 2020 results debacle

This teacher outlines four steps to fix assessment in Scotland following the cancellation of national exams


Covid and exams: How to avoid a repeat of the 2020 SQA results debacle

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) found itself in a hole months ago with its alternative certification model, which is creating unnecessary stress for young people, while asking teachers to deliver the impossible.

But in the face of growing and valid criticism, instead of climbing back out, the SQA continues to dig deeper.

On Monday it fired up the JCBs and pulled us further into the deepening trench by issuing two statements – one that prescribes punishment for students, already living through a crisis, who share exam questions on social media, and another that muddies the waters even further with a possible September deadline for the submission of results for a “very small” number of students. 

This means that schools across the country could be faced with requests from students and parents who think that, given the entire summer holidays to study, they would be better placed to sit their non-exam-exams, thus crippling the move to the new timetable.

It could have serious implications for students who are trying with all their might to reach conditional offers set by universities and colleges. Indeed, a great many students would do far better if they could study all summer, rather than the cruel cramming that is being demanded of them right now. 

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But there is still a sensible way out. 

The first point to address, though, is the lie at the centre of the whole thing. Whilst issuing statement after statement using words like “flexibility” and “holistic judgment”, the SQA has simultaneously issued specific instruction to schools saying the opposite.

SQA assessment: Exams by another name

“You must base your provisional results on…question paper(s) covering as much of the course as possible…and further top-up question papers or extended tests” and these must be in “closed-book conditions”.

These quotations are from the physics guidance but there is similar wording for all the sciences, maths, history and many other subjects.

The soft public advice about looking after learners, and the hard, non-negotiable instructions to schools simply do not marry.

To say that exams have been cancelled this year is a lie

On the contrary, the pressures, anxieties and stresses that exams place on students and teachers have increased significantly. Yet in an election campaign for a Parliament where, after health, education is the most important devolved power, nobody was talking about this because, when the Scottish education system senses dissent, it closes ranks. 

Most of the lead organisations in the system – such as the EIS union, School Leaders Scotland (SLS), the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), and the National Parent Forum of Scotland (NPFS) – are part of the group that has agreed the alternative model. Statements are always issued by the SQA on behalf of the National Qualifications 2021 Group – in other words, making sure that ownership, and criticism, can be evenly spread. 

But there is a better way.  

Last year’s results were based on inferred attainment. The problems stem from this year’s having to be based on demonstrated attainment and the prescription, in most cases, that it must be demonstrated through an exam. 

I propose the following solution:

  • Issue a statement that immediately withdraws the requirement on teachers to use exams and “question papers covering the whole course”.
  • Inject some real flexibility into the system by allowing teachers to use a balance of demonstrated and inferred attainment and remove all of the guidance about question papers being the best judge of performance.
  • Accept that it is simply unfair to expect students to have learned anything remotely near to a whole course in the past year. Accept that teachers know and understand the standard and allow them to use a genuinely broad range of evidence, without the threat of coming after them for it, to judge how students might have done in a world without Covid. We have far more evidence than we had available last year. There is no need to force children to do exams as well.   
  • Withdraw the September extension. Instead of giving people more time to achieve the impossible, allow us to take an approach that can be concluded before the summer without having such a negative impact on student and staff mental health and throwing the start of next session into chaos. 

I should say clearly that I genuinely believe the SQA is staffed by good people who want nothing other than the best for young people. The circumstances we are in are not of their making. I think John Swinney is a good education secretary and I hope he continues. But the January-March lockdown was not envisaged when this model was planned, and we must hold our hands up and accept it is impossible and cruel to continue with it.

All of this can be fixed by the SQA – or the NQ21 Group – issuing a simple statement moving to a more appropriate balance between demonstrated and inferred attainment. It would probably take its new director of communications about half an hour to type it.

Come on Scotland. Let’s stop digging

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared as a blog post. The writer is a teacher in Scotland

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