Tes Scotland can reveal that it is costing just £7 million to award national school qualifications this year after the cancellation of the exams owing to coronavirus, resulting in savings of around £18 million.
In a typical year, the exams cost approximately £24.8 million to deliver – that was the figure the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) had budgeted for in order to deliver the 2020 exam diet.
However, figures obtained by Tes Scotland, using freedom of information (FoI) legislation, reveal the “alternative certification model” (ACM), which replaced the exams, is this year costing £7 million – £17.8 million less.
Background: How much cancelling the exams saved in 2020
Last year, when the exams were also cancelled because of the pandemic, the replacement system cost £5.3 million. However the SQA always predicted the ACM would cost more this year owing to increased costs for evidence gathering and quality assurance, as well as the cost of running the appeals process.
The savings remain significant but there are no plans to pass these on to schools, colleges and local authorities, which pay £29.2 million to the SQA every year in the form of a levies. The Scottish government, however, has slashed its funding to the body because of the savings made as a result of the pandemic.
Scottish government funding in the financial year 2019-20 to the SQA was £41.4 million but, in 2020-21, that figure almost halved to £21 million. The SQA told Tes Scotland that this “notable reduction in the level of funding” from Scottish government was “reflective of the reduction in our operating costs as a result of the cancellation of the exam diet and wider impact of Covid-19”.
It also said that government funding this financial year, currently expected to be £38 million, will be “monitored closely on a monthly basis” and the level of funding “adjusted accordingly”.
However, when Tes Scotland asked if the annual levy paid by local authorities, schools and colleges to the SQA for running the exams was going to be reduced to reflect the fact that the ACM was costing less, the SQA said its costs were “largely fixed and have not reduced as a result of the cancellation of the exam diet and need to continue to be funded. Therefore, although the NQ [national qualification] income...is more than the current anticipated additional costs of the 2021 awarding model, the figures are not comparable.”
The SQA added: “The SQA budget for 2021-22, as agreed with Scottish government, assumes continued payment of the levy at the existing rate. The costs of awarding National Qualifications, including this year, are greater than the contribution made by local authorities in the form of a levy.”
Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer said that schools and teachers were “at least” as deserving of a refund.
He said: “I’m sure the Scottish government appreciates the significant refunds it has received from the SQA over the last two years. Given schools and teachers have seen their workloads increase as the SQA’s has dramatically decreased, though, surely they were at least equally deserving of a refund on their contribution? The exams authority’s position of refunding one but not the other only makes sense once you realise that the SQA sees its relationship with schools and councils as a fundamentally commercial one. That misapprehension is one of many issues the upcoming reform process must address.”
A Scottish government spokesperson said: "Despite there being no exams last year or this year, there is still a significant amount of work involved in making sure learners receive the qualifications they deserve. Schools and colleges make payments to SQA in respect of qualifications being awarded, and despite the difficult circumstances, qualifications were and will be, awarded.
"The SQA levy to local authorities and entry fees charged to independent schools and colleges for the certification of national qualifications have remained unchanged since 2012-13. These fees contribute to the cost of awarding. The costs of awarding National Qualifications are greater than the contribution made by local authorities, independent schools and colleges."
The FoI response says the current estimated cost of delivery of the ACM for 2021 is £6.976 million, including £0.639 million for quality assurance, a provision of £2.609 million for appeals, £2.195 million for IT related changes and £1.533 million for other delivery costs.
The FoI response says other delivery costs include activities such as marketing, amendments to qualifications and assessments, as well as any additional staff roles created specifically for the purpose of awarding national qualifications in 2021.
The 2020 figures – also obtained by Tes Scotland via FoI – showed that the biggest savings when the exams were cancelled last year were: markers fees and expenses, which cost £8.8 million less than expected; logistics and events, which cost £5.7 million less than expected; and invigilation costs, which were £3.6 million less.
This year teacher judgement is, according to the government, central to the system that has replaced the exams.
Teachers, however, have disputed this, saying that there needs to be a better balance between demonstrated and inferred attainment this year to enable them to take account of the huge challenges some pupils have faced.
Teachers have been promised a £400 one-off payment for the additional work they have had to carry out this year in relation to the national qualifications, including setting and marking assessments, and carrying out moderation work to ensure consistency in grading.
It is understood that this would represent around 28 hours of extra work. But some teachers say they will need to work many more hours than that, meaning some could actually be paid less than the minimum wage – something that was acknowledged in a Scottish government document.
The February document identified potential concerns around the level of payment being offered, stating: “£400, and less after tax and pension contributions, will reflect less than minimal wage for the workload of some teachers and lecturers.”