A Tes Scotland investigation has revealed that Scotland’s exam body saved almost £20 million as a result of the cancellation of last year’s exams.
The news has prompted calls for schools to benefit from the unexpected surplus, so that they can “recruit desperately needed additional staff”.
Figures uncovered by Tes Scotland, using Freedom of Information legislation, show that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) expected the 2020 exam diet to cost £24.8 million – but, ultimately, it ended up costing just £5.3 million, a saving of £19.5 million.
The SQA said that, after taking account of “the impact of Covid-19 on SQA’s operations”, £14.3 million had been returned to the Scottish government, which the government planned to apply “against other spending pressures”.
The FOI also reveals that the SQA received £29.2 million towards the delivery of the qualifications from schools and councils – and some headteachers are calling for their money back.
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One headteacher told Tes Scotland: “At a time of budget cuts and counting the pennies more than ever, it is quite galling that schools aren’t receiving any form of SQA refund for a service we’ve paid for but not received. Nobody is expecting all of our money back, just some of it.
"It would make a huge difference. I’m turning staff down who want to attend online CPD (continuing professional development) courses costing £50 – courses which would be of great value to both them and their students. The irony is, the teachers I have no money to support are the very ones doing the SQA’s job for them.”
Last year, private schools questioned why the SQA did not reduce charges after this year's exams were cancelled – especially as the alternative arrangements resulted in teachers taking on “a large part” of the work required to determine students' grades.
Responding to the figures, Scottish Greens’ education spokesman, Ross Greer, said schools were right to ask for a refund.
He also said the figures were a reminder of how costly exams are to deliver and why Scotland should give serious consideration to replacing its “archaic” system for awarding qualifications.
Mr Greer said: “The £20 million saved by cancelling exams could pay for 500 additional full-time teachers for a full year. While budget transfers are unfortunately never quite that simple, schools and councils are absolutely right to question why they’ve not received some kind of refund from the SQA.
“Those funds could have been redeployed to recruit desperately needed additional staff, helping to deal with the crippling workload pressures of the pandemic.
“These figures are a reminder that Scotland’s high-stakes end-of-term exams model is incredibly expensive to administer in normal years. This may be an opportunity we didn’t ask for but we should be bold enough to seize it, replace our archaic exams system permanently and use the money saved to invest in the additional staff and resources that schools so desperately need.”
The SQA said that neither the annual levy paid by local authorities, which amounted to £24.5 million last year, nor the money raised through the entry fees paid by colleges and schools – £4.7 million – had gone up since 2012-13, and they did not cover the full cost of qualifications delivery.
It also said the figures that it had disclosed regarding the budgeted costs for last year's exams, and the actual spend, excluded “SQA salaries, overheads or indirect costs”.
It said: “Direct income received by SQA in respect of awarding and commercial activities does not cover the full cost of SQA activities with the balance of funding £48.8 million provided by the Scottish Government via Grant in Aid.
“Taking into account all factors affecting SQA’s financial position, including cancellation of the exam diet, the impact of Covid-19 on SQA’s operations – including the restriction on commercial and international activities – SQA has advised the Scottish government that it will not require to draw down £14.3 million of grant in aid which is retained by the Scottish government and applied against other spending pressures.”
The figures show 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.
The SQA told Tes Scotland that it did not know how much it was going to cost to deliver qualifications this year, but that it was anticipating “the cost of awarding national qualifications in 2021 will be less than had an exam diet been held”. However, it added that it expected the process to be more expensive than it had been in 2020.
It said: “As the Alternative Certification Model is different than that operated in 2020, we anticipate the costs associated with evidence gathering and quality assurance to be higher, as well as provisions required to support an appeals mechanism this year.”
When education secretary John Swinney announced in December that he had decided to cancel the 2021 exams, he promised a “one-off payment for teachers and lecturers”, acknowledging that they were “critical to assessing and marking National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses”.
The day after the commitment to a payment was made, the EIS teaching union said the starting point for arguing for the one-off payment for teachers was the SQA no longer having to pay for markers. However, negotiations on the actual sum teachers would receive had only just begun, it said.