SQA Results Day 2018: Behind the scenes at SQA

Tes Scotland gets an exclusive look behind the scenes of the exam body at its busiest time of the year

Schools out for summer? Not at exam board, the SQA

As the exams come to an end, for many working in Scottish education, the summer months that follow herald the promise of a seven-week break. But not everyone in the sector gets to have down time, with exam results due out a few weeks after schools have broken up.

In fact, at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), it is one of the busiest times of year. And Tes Scotland has gained exclusive access to the exam body’s Edinburgh headquarters to see the action ramping up, shortly before the annual release of thousands of students’ results.

From the second week of June until the first week in July, in meeting after meeting, staff set the grade boundaries for every exam sat, taking into account the data generated via the marking process and the profile of the candidates, as well as feedback from markers about any questions interpreted in a way that was not anticipated.

To give an idea of the scale of the job, the SQA offers 64 unique subjects and 500 unique qualifications, including Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers.

The solution that SQA chief executive Janet Brown has come up with is to simply not go home. Instead, Dr Brown – who lives in Paisley and usually works out of the SQA’s Glasgow office – lives for four weeks in a Premier Inn about 60 miles away, near the body’s Edinburgh headquarters.

She has not taken a summer holiday since she began working at the SQA 12 years ago, given that, two-and-a-half weeks after grade boundaries are finalised, the results come out. This year, the results are revealed on Tuesday.

Dr Brown was, however, matter-of-fact about missing out on a summer break. After 20 years spent working in the US, where her entire year’s holiday entitlement was just two weeks, she has made the adjustment quite happily and gets away in October instead.

She said: “This organisation is passionate about making sure we do the right thing because we have a huge responsibility to every single child sitting these qualifications and who have put the work in to make sure they get the qualification they have earned. [The result] may not always be what they want, but [it will be] what they have earned.”

Jean Blair, director of operations at the SQA, echoed this sentiment. She said: “Every child’s assessment is their blood, sweat and tears, and is their passport to fulfilling their aspirations and dreams. That’s why the level of passion and care here is so high – the staff and the profession feel that.”

This year, 134,000 candidates sat more than 758,000 exams that were marked by 6,500 markers. The SQA has to collect in the scripts, get them scanned and marked, quality-assure the marking, collate the data and make sure that everyone receives their certificate on the same day, irrespective of whether they live in Shetland or central Edinburgh.

It used to be that once a candidate had sat an exam, just one copy of each script was in existence. It was mailed from centres to the SQA and back out to markers. Dr Brown remembered being shown the “procedures hall” in Dalkeith for the first time, where exam papers were held before winging their way to markers. She recalled instinctively scanning the ceiling for sprinklers, but finding none because, as she points out, had the sprinklers ever gone off, the water would have turned the scripts to pulp.

These days, the risk of losing or damaging scripts has been lessened thanks to technology. Dr Brown said: “We have moved from marking on scripts only, to a significant proportion – almost all of it – being e-marked. That has not only logistical benefits, but it means we have a copy of almost every exam.”

Now, 97 per cent of qualifications are e-marked with the exception of subjects such as music, which require a visiting examination, and art and design or fashion and textiles, for which markers see the pupils’ original folios of work.

It is striking, though, that arguably the biggest change in the way that qualifications are delivered is in how exams are marked. One might have assumed that changes in technology – and the curriculum – would have also affected how students are assessed.

Dr Brown has said in the past that she would be surprised if handwritten exams were still around in a decade’s time, but change in the way that we assess pupils has been “slow”, said Louise Hayward, professor of educational assessment and innovation at the University of Glasgow. The SQA has even been accused of going backwards, thanks to the longer exams introduced this year for National 5 and next year for Higher to compensate for the removal of unit assessments.

Professor Hayward said: “While there were attempts to capture the essence of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in a value-added dimension to the exam, it’s hard to argue that the exam system, as it exists, relates closely to all the aspirations of CfE.”

She called for Scotland to come up with a 20-year plan to make the exam system fit for the future, arguing that even a move to open-book exams would test a wider range of skills.

Hayward continued: “Our exam system does what it does now very effectively, but to be fit for purpose in the future, then we need some long-term thinking.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 3 August edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full article hereTo subscribe, click here. This week's Tes Scotland magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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