SQA exams reform: 'rushed policy is bad policy'

Zeal for exam reform must be tempered – because policy mistakes made in haste are hugely difficult to undo, say Jo-Anne Baird and Louise Hayward

Louise Hayward and Jo-Anne Baird

SQA exams reform: 'rushed policy is bad policy'

Every year in Scotland, SQA exam results are contentious. If results improve, questions are asked about falling standards; if results decline, the system must be in freefall.

This year, results emerge in the context of a pandemic, a pandemic that has put particular strains on young people. Yet, the Higher results show record improvement at grade A, at 47.6 per cent and a slightly lower 87.3 per cent passing. Disengagement of some young people from online learning may explain the lower pass rate in this exceptional, Covid-dominated year.

The basis on which results have been issued is of course very different from pre-pandemic times. Exams were cancelled again this year. SQA’s "alternative certification model" (ACM) has utilised teachers’ expertise across the education system in Scotland to gather evidence, evaluate it and to standardise judgment within and across schools.


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As in 2020, questions will be asked about the effectiveness of the moderation system, but this time no statistical algorithm played a part in the process. Whether the moderation system is yet robust enough to quality assure standards is an open question. However, with a longer lead-in period, more rigorous quality-assurance systems could be developed that leverage teacher expertise and indeed build assessment capacity in the profession. Many countries, such as Sweden, the US, New Zealand and Queensland in Australia, have had high-stakes qualification systems that are based upon teachers’ judgments.

Our research with education stakeholders in Scotland has shown that there is a great deal of concern for the class of 2021.  Young people worry that their results will not be taken as seriously as those who had the opportunity to take exams. It is of little comfort to them that they are in the same circumstance as many young people across the world, since exams were cancelled during the pandemic in a wide range of countries, including in France, Italy, Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands and England. Others, such as China postponed the exams.

Young people are worried about the currency of their qualifications.  Therefore, it is heartening to see how key communities in Scotland are tackling this concern. For example, business leaders have written an open letter to young Scots to congratulate them on their success in uniquely challenging circumstances, reassuring them that this year’s qualifications are just as respected by employers as those attained in previous years.  

As educationalists, our first concern must also be with the young people whose education has been so disrupted over the past two years. We, too, should seek to support this year’s cohort of young people as they transition into the next phase of their lives – be that school, college, university or employment.

But support for this year’s young people does not mean that as the dust settles, we do not take a hard look at the qualification system to ask if it is fit for purpose for future generations. The context for such a review has now been established. The recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on Scotland’s qualifications system concluded that more could be done to align the qualifications with the principles of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – the 2010 Scottish government policy that revolutionised the curriculum in Scotland. The government subsequently announced that SQA is to be reformed, with the review being led by Professor Ken Muir.

With the disruption of the pandemic comes the opportunity to do things differently, to do things better. Perhaps Scotland’s major success with CfE has been to sustain commitment to its vision over a long timeframe. Cross-party consensus was achieved over the policy and this is crucial in avoiding policy flip-flops or policy rushed to suit political timescales. Rushed policy is almost always bad policy and policy is more than the development of the vision; how that vision will be enacted in practice in every school and every classroom is just as important. And that is where key aspects of CfE began to unravel.

Scotland’s qualifications system is complex and meets multiple needs. It has high international standing: Scotland has been known for its evolutionary, not revolutionary approach to policy development. This is our starting point.

As Scotland now begins to reflect on the future of qualifications within CfE, it will be crucial to learn from our own history – to build from previous success and this time to tackle the challenges we did not address in the past. The right sources of expertise need to be involved in the policy process; learners, practitioners, parents, researchers, policymakers, employers, further and higher education all have crucial roles to play. Errors in the policy and in its implementation will result otherwise.

Radical, swift reform may seem attractive to some. But the time and effort needed to undo the impact of bad policy should convince even the most avid reformer of the need to "caw canny"; to plan and to implement a better future for qualifications in Scotland with care and with people. There really is no alternative.

Louise Hayward (University of Glasgow) and Jo-Anne Baird (University of Oxford) are independent academics – both are professors of education – and do not speak on behalf of their institutions. They are members of a number of advisory groups, including SQA’s Qualifications Committee, but are not employees and do not speak on behalf of SQA

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Louise Hayward and Jo-Anne Baird

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