SQA exam body selling its services 'all over planet'

Scotland's exam body criticised for 700 per cent in overseas certification, including with 'some of the world's worst human rights abusers'

Exam body’s 700% increase in overseas certification

Scotland’s exam body is under fire over the international arm of its operation, with MSPs questioning why it is courting business abroad where the governments are “the world’s worst human rights abusers”.

An investigation by Tes Scotland has found that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is now operating in over 20 countries, including some that are responsible for “grave” human rights violations.

The information unearthed using freedom of information legislation reveals for the first time the full extent of the SQA’s overseas work.

It shows that the body is currently working in at least 23 countries, including Myanmar and Brunei.


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Tes Scotland asked the SQA to provide a description of the work being undertaken in each country and the value of each contract. The SQA simply responded that the work being undertaken was “delivery of SQA qualifications” and that the income from the arrangements was “dependent on the numbers of candidates that are presented each year for SQA qualifications”.

Previous reports in the media have highlighted that the SQA is selling computing courses to a college with close links to Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The sultan was the subject of an international protest after it emerged he planned to introduce a “death by stoning” sentence for offences including adultery and sodomy.

The pressure led to Brunei backtracking on the enforcement of the laws but the Sultan said their “merit” would eventually become clear.

Overall, the information released by the SQA shows that certification of overseas candidates has increased by almost 700 per cent from 5,600 in 2010 to 38,159 last year (2017-18).

Scottish Greens education spokesman, Ross Greer, said: “Teachers, pupils and parents will find it bizarre that the government’s exams agency is all over the planet selling its wares, in many cases to countries whose governments are the world’s worst human rights abusers. I’m still waiting for answers on how the SQA ensures that any student involved in one of their accredited courses has their basic rights guaranteed.

“For this international business to have increased so exponentially in the same few years as teacher trust in the SQA has cratered raises some pretty serious questions about their priorities. Greater focus on the domestic front, such as the increasing number of students leaving Scottish education with no qualifications at all, would be a more welcome approach.”

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said the figures were “astonishing” and questioned if “the organisation has its priorities correct”.

He added: “There are significant problems within Scottish education, the SQA are integral to rectifying them, and that is where their focus should be.”

The EIS teaching union has raised concerns about the SQA’s overseas work in the past. In evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee it questioned whether the SQA should be drumming up business abroad during “a critical period for the final development and implementation of new qualifications in Scotland”.

It added: “The EIS believes that Scotland’s schools and colleges require the SQA to remain focused on meeting the needs of the qualifications system in Scotland rather than shifting the emphasis of its activities and courting further business internationally.”

The SQA has been the focus of teachers’ ire in recent years given the increased workload associated with the introduction of the new qualifications. This began in 2013-14 but continued for longer than anticipated because of the education secretary John Swinney’s decision to remove unit assessments, which were blamed for creating a testing treadmill in schools.

SQA documents make it clear that it believes the benefits of its international work go beyond the financial.  

Its Annual Report and Accounts 2017-18 states: “They support the Scottish government’s international strategy and its plans to engage with specific countries, and the promotion of Scottish education and Scotland worldwide."

However, the body also says that by taking advantage of such opportunities it “can reduce its dependency on the public purse, and reduce the level of grant required from the Scottish government”.

Last year the SQA received £30.5 million in Scottish government funding. However, the SQA receives the bulk of its income in charges for the delivery of its products and services. Last year its total income from the entry fees it charges for its qualifications was £48.7 million.

The SQA's overseas work has also been controversial due to revelations about the cash being spent on flights and hotels. SQA executives spent as much as £800 a night on hotel accommodation abroad and frequently flew business class, a Sunday newspaper reported earlier this year. 

In response to a question from Tes Scotland about which countries outside of Scotland the SQA was currently working in, the body replied: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, China, Cyprus, Greece, Holland, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates; and the US.

The figures for the number of certificates issued to candidates outside of Scotland last year showed the body was also working in England, Northern Ireland, Wales, Ireland and Jersey.

England was by far the biggest SQA customer outside of Scotland last year, with 29,144 certificates issued to candidates there, followed by China (3,317 certificates); India (1,759 certificates) and Sri Lanka (315 certificates).

In Myanmar, the national army and security forces have been blamed by the UN for the systematic and brutal abuse of hundreds of thousands of – mainly Rohingya – Muslims.

In September 2017, the UN human rights chief described the grave human rights abuses as “a text book example of ethnic cleansing”. More recently the military has been clashing with Arakan Army (AA) insurgents, who want political autonomy for Rakhine Buddhists.

A SQA spokesman said: “SQA strongly opposes all forms of human rights abuse and unlawful discrimination. We strongly support equal opportunities in employment, education and training.

“Education is a positive force for change in influencing wider society, as well as the lives and economic mobility of learners. Our international activity promotes Scottish values.

“Our international and commercial activities generate contribution to SQA’s finances, which are invested back into the Scottish education system thereby reducing dependency on the public purse."

The SQA spokesman added: “We have a dedicated team which delivers our international activity, therefore not impacting on our commitment to the learners of Scotland.

“We carry out extensive assessments before working in a country and take the latest advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

“SQA approves all centres to the same Scottish standard, no matter where in the world they are based. We require centres to have a number of documented policies and procedures in place, including a candidate equal opportunities policy, and a candidate complaints policy. There must be no discriminatory barriers in the way of any individual who wishes to take SQA qualifications.

“SQA has a long history of working across the world supporting the Scottish government's international engagement agenda. Our international activity has a number of benefits such as supporting the development of qualifications and qualifications frameworks in emerging nations, reinforcing the value of Scottish education in the global arena, encouraging shared learning, and promoting Scottish values.”

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