SQA boss on exams turmoil and 18 months of Covid

In her first extended interview since Covid began, SQA chief executive says the body has 'absolutely learned' from a turbulent 18 months

Henry Hepburn

SQA boss on exams turmoil and 18 months of Covid

Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) chief executive Fiona Robertson today gave her first extended interview since the Covid pandemic began a year and a half ago. Here is what she told Tes Scotland – six days before SQA results day 2021 – about a period of huge turmoil for all those involved in the qualifications system.

Looking back at 18 months of Covid, would she do anything differently?

“Of course, there are always things you would do differently,” Ms Robertson said. She would not be drawn on specifics, adding instead that “we’ve certainly ensured that we've had a focus on learners on engaging with the system”. Getting students the results they deserve has “absolutely been our focus all along” and the SQA had “absolutely learned” from the experience of last year, having “taken forward” the recommendations of the Priestley review of the 2020 qualifications debacle.

Given all the concerns expressed about the appeals process in place for 2021, how does she think it will go?

Ms Robertson said the SQA had “planned well for appeals” and she was “confident that…we're ready for appeals”, although “the focus of the ‘alternative certification model’ (ACM) has been getting it right first time”.

Would she agree that the SQA could have acted more quickly at various points and done a better job of communicating key messages?

She said 2020-21 had been a year with “a lot of changes” but that there had been weekly meetings of the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group – which SQA is part of – and it had been working “as quickly as [it] can to provide guidance and support and to make changes where changes were required”.

While she acknowledged that target dates for publication of advice to teachers were “pushed back”, “all guidance was provided as quickly as possible” – she added that 150 national courses were affected and that there was guidance for each one, and that there had been a “full public consultation” on both assessment and on appeals specifically.

The appeals guidance appeared “a little later than we originally had planned” (on 2 June, having been delayed several times from the original target of early May). Ms Robertson pointed to “reasons for that”, saying that there were “a number of issues to work through and of course we have the new [education] ministers as well”. (Shirley-Anne Somerville took over as education secretary from John Swinney on 19 May).

But she added that these delays “didn't impact on the service that's being offered to young people”.


SQA results 2021: How we got to SQA results day 2021

Background: SQA to be replaced, education secretary reveals

Analysis: Is teacher judgement of 2021 grades really being trusted?

View from students: Grading in 2021 has been ‘a bit of a train wreck’

Flashback to May: Exam questions shared on TikTok ‘SQA black market’

Teacher’s view: ‘My students aren't failing – the system is'

Key findings: Priestley review of the 2020 SQA results fiasco​​​​


On whether any of the criticism of the SQA had been unfair

“I think we've responded as quickly as we can to a set of changing circumstances,” said Ms Robertson, adding that “some things do take a little time, but we've sought to communicate and manage that as best we can”.

On the view expressed by one teacher in Tes Scotland's feature on the ACM to be published this Friday: “In reality, we did have exams – but administered in a much less efficient way by already swamped teachers.”

The “conventional exam” teachers and students were accustomed to pre-Covid – “where everyone’s sitting the same subject on the same day at the same time" – was “absolutely not in place” in 2020-21, Ms Robertson said. She insisted that “demonstrated attainment was, alongside teacher judgement, at the heart of the approach”.

But she added: “We've also acknowledged that the window of assessment was shorter than we all would have liked, and that was really down to the move into remote learning for that January to Easter period.” She argued, however, that there was “flexibility in how that [assessment] was deployed”.

Was she surprised when assessment papers (routinely viewed as exams, even if there were no official national exams taking place) were shared on social media platforms such as TikTok, as Tes Scotland revealed in May?

“We provided assessment resources to schools, because schools and teachers had said that they wanted those resources. We made it clear that security was important, but we also highlighted that the teachers could use a range of resources so they didn’t need to use SQA resources, and indeed quite a lot of the material that was shared online were not SQA papers.”

On the proliferation of assessment papers on social media sites such as TikTok, she added: “It obviously was regrettable that materials were shared, because the flexibility around the assessment approach – and the work we did with schools around that – I think was an assistance.”

On any action taken after the SQA wrote to schools and colleges in May to warn of possible penalties over materials shared on social media

“It was for centres [schools and FE colleges] to decide whether any action should be taken, and we were there to provide advice if needs be around the assessment approach that they might wish to take, particularly if assessment materials had been compromised. There are long-established mechanisms around that, which the schools and colleges understand, so we weren't seeing anything new there.”

When asked if many schools contacted the SQA to discuss concerns about materials being shared on social media, Ms Robertson would only say that “We had a number of discussions with schools around these issues.” On what action was taken, she said that “a range of a range of discussions took place, including around the assessment approach that schools were taking for particular subjects, so our role there was really to offer guidance and support around what types of what action might be taken”.

On whether, given all that took place in 2020-21, she is confident that every student will get a fair deal

“I think a huge amount of effort has been deployed across the system – by teachers, parents, by SQA, by local authorities and so on – to provide support to young people this year, to make sure that their qualifications absolutely reflect all their hard work and have credibility and are fair.”

When pressed on whether she thought every student would get a fair deal with their results, Ms Robertson said: “I think everyone's worked hard to make sure that everyone’s had a fair deal, absolutely – yeah, absolutely.”

She gave examples of what the SQA had done as part of that effort – including “a lot of work [with teachers] around understanding standards…in terms of a grading” and “quality assurance work” – but added that “fundamentally this year has been about teacher judgement, backed by evidence”.

When asked if she could in any way quantify the number of students who might not get the grades they deserve, Ms Robertson again made reference to “the quality assurance process”. She added: “I think everyone absolutely has been focused on making sure that your people across Scotland are treated fairly. And I know teachers, in making their judgments, will have had that very much in their minds, and all the work that we’ve done has been in support of that.”

A headteacher quoted in this Friday’s Tes Scotland feature says that the “main victims” of inconsistent ACM approaches were students, who were “stressed, disorientated, over-tested and under-supported by a system they had no part in making, in which their voices were not heard”. We asked Ms Robertson if that was a picture she recognised and whether students were owed an apology by the SQA

“I have huge empathy with the circumstances that young people have faced this year. I think we've acknowledged that throughout the year, and been very, very conscious of that throughout. We've worked very hard across the system to put the very best approach we can in place.”

She added: “We've communicated directly with young people around some of the support that's in place, or through their school and other organisations and, crucially, we’ve also provided a service for later certification for those who may have found it difficult to complete all their assessments and work before the end of the academic year.”

Ms Robertson also said that “no one wants young people to be under stress and pressure and we’ve done all we can within SQA, but also I think teachers and schools and colleges have done all they can to minimise any undue stress”.

When pressed on whether an unequivocal apology to students should be offered by the SQA, Ms Robertson said: “I think everyone working in Scotland in public services absolutely acknowledges the circumstances that people have found themselves in and have huge empathy around the challenges and the disruption to learning that young some young people have faced. But, as I said, there’s been a huge effort, right across the education system, including SQA, to ensure that young people get the awards that they deserve.”

On a report by investigative news platform The Ferret that the SQA failed to act on fears of young people about grading in 2020-21 – expressed at “learner panel” events – and that this made “a mockery” of the SQA commitment to children’s rights

“We’ve been very conscious of the need to ensure that, as far as possible, that the approach that we’re taking is understood and learner-centric,” Ms Robertson said.

She added: “We have listened to young people throughout this process, but there have been some difficult decisions to take [including, at the learner panel in question] the appeals process…We’ve talked that through at length, and we will continue to engage and evolve our work with young people.”

She also said: “As a public body we obviously do an equalities impact assessment, we've done a children's wellbeing impact assessment – we've done that for the ACM as a whole, and also for the appeals process as well – [which] highlights the fairness of the approach that we’ve taken, but we absolutely acknowledge that these issues are difficult and there have been some difficult decisions.”

On the argument that inequality has long been reinforced by the use of schools’ historical attainment data to determine results, and that Covid merely served to highlight this

Ms Robertson said that changes by ministers in 2016 put a “greater focus on a final exam” but “the assessments are fair”.

She added: “We don’t, as part of our processes, look at the historic achievement of schools, and this year has been no algorithm – this has been absolutely about teacher judgement with supportive quality assurance and resources for young people.”

When put to her that teachers might see it as disingenuous to suggest that a school’s past performance in exams was not a factor in 2020-21, Ms Robertson insisted that “teacher judgement has been at the heart of this year’s evidence-based approach”.

She added that “past attainment has not played a part [in] the quality assurance that we’ve undertaken, or indeed the final decisions that teachers have made”, and that “in a normal exam year that [also] absolutely doesn’t play a part at all – it’s very much about individual achievement, no matter where a young person goes to school or college”.

Does she expect national exams to take place in 2021-22, and is the SQA prepared for all eventualities?

"The decision about whether we have exams is not for me, it’s for Scottish ministers, and I know the cabinet secretary intends to say something more about that around the start of term."

Following the announcement in June that the SQA is to be replaced, what does she expect to be different about the entity that replaces it?

Ms Robertson said it would be “premature for me to make statements about what a new body could be” before Professor Ken Muir’s upcoming review of the June report on Curriculum for Excellence by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. She added that whatever bodies emerge from the current incarnations of the SQA and Education Scotland must “obviously continue to deliver for learners across Scotland”.

On whether she could offer any clarity on how much longer the SQA will exist in its current form.

Ms Robertson said “that’s not really a question for me” and that it was “really important that my commitment and my focus is on ensuring that SQA continues to deliver”. The education secretary has previously indicated that the SQA will continue to run qualifications for the entirety of 2021-22.

On whether Ms Robertson expects to have a role in whatever body replaces the SQA

“I will play a full part in the conversation, as you’d expect, about the new body,” she said of the upcoming Muir review and related discussions about the new organisation.

What is the biggest lesson that she and the SQA have learned from the whole experience of Covid?

“It's been a very challenging period for SQA but also for everyone working in education,” said Ms Robertson, adding that “people have worked very hard to deliver”.

“I’m very conscious of the impact that that Covid’s had on young people, but [also] on us all. And we've all worked hard to deliver, and we’ll continue to do so – absolutely.”

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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