Interview - Gill Stewart

25th February 2011 at 00:00
The SQA director of qualifications development has a lot riding on the redesign of the Scottish assessment system, which will impact on hundreds of schools and thousands of pupils - not least her own son, who will be among the first cohort to sit the new exams. Photography by Chris James

How many people work for you?

230, split into seven different teams.

How many are working on the school qualifications redesign?

Around 50, some full-time and some part-time. Other people in the directorate will also be working part-time on it - probably another 20.

How has the SQA tried to make the process more open and transparent?

We are putting information on the web as things develop, not waiting until April 2012 when the final qualifications arrangements are published. People can sign up to email alerts for their subject.

How do you feel about your son being in the first cohort to sit the new exams?

It does give you a different perspective; it's also quite exciting that he is part of it.

Does he know his mum is responsible for designing the new exams?

He is aware of the high-profile nature of what I do to some extent. We had a briefing on Curriculum for Excellence at his school. I was told: "Don't say anything. Remember you're here as my mum, not an SQA person." And he was quite right, of course.

Does he make any requests?

To make them easy. I just say: "Standards are standards."

Does it increase the pressure?

It does to a certain extent, but it should reassure other parents.

Do you sympathise with parents who are worried about the new regime?

Parents are anxious; that's understandable. Through communication, the media and schools, we can try to reassure parents, but their concerns are not something we can dispel overnight because the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

What is a typical day for you?

I usually start every day with a run at 5.30am and then start work around 8am and get home around 7 to 7.30pm. Most of the day, I'm tied up in meetings.

How will National 4 and 5 differ from what went before?

There will be less prescription and more personalisation and choice in the qualifications. For example, there will be "added value assessments", a lot of which will be projects, so in history students will be able to take an aspect of the course that really interests them and study it in more depth. At National 5, more coursework will contribute to the final grade, so exams should be shorter. At the moment, half of intermediate courses have some coursework aspect. It will be a much larger proportion at National 5.

Does internally assessing National 4 mean the qualification will hold less weight?

No. HNC and HND are internally assessed, but quality-assured by SQA. Many people use these qualifications to progress into employment or to get into higher education, often with advanced standing.

How many subjects do you envisage pupils being able to take in S4?

It will vary from school to school and could range from five to eight. The average number of Standard grades and Intermediates young people do is between five and six. Education is a lifelong process and is not just about the S4 experience. They can add things in S5 and S6 or they can go to college and add things there.

How would you sum up the main changes to the Higher?

Some of the changes we are seeing at National 5 might feed through to the Higher, so more skills-based, more coursework and potentially shorter exams, but we've not really looked at the Higher yet in any great detail and the changes will be variable across the different subjects.

Should information about the new exams have been available to teachers sooner?

The idea for the Curriculum for Excellence development programme was that curriculum development came first and qualifications followed, so it would not have been possible to devise the qualifications until all of that was in place. The qualifications will build on the outcomes, so there shouldn't be any shocks.

What has been the trickiest part of the qualifications redesign?

Taking everybody with us and the high-profile nature of the changes. If we make a change to college qualifications, there are 40 to deal with, whereas a change to English and maths means dealing with 400-odd schools. And there are so many different organisations interested because school is such a fundamental building block. That ups the ante.

Is the SQA ready for 2013?

Yes, we have all our programme plans in place and everything is on track. We won't necessarily get it 100 per cent right; more likely, we will get 95 per cent right and have to tweak it, but that's always the case with qualifications development.

Do you have any nightmares about a 2000-style fiasco, when the SQA couldn't cope with all the changes and new data involved with the reformed exams system?

No, I don't. A decade on and SQA has robust systems in place to ensure that everything is in hand with the CfE qualifications and assessment development, quality assurance and certification. We will never be complacent, but we are confident that we can meet our delivery deadlines and have systems in place to monitor this on an ongoing basis.

Personal profile

Born: Dunfermline, 1961

Education: Kirkcaldy High; Edinburgh University, BSc in biological science; Glasgow University, PhD

First job: Glasgow University biochemistry research fellow

Subsequent career: Scotvec qualifications development team member; SQA head of maths, science and technology qualifications development; head of national review team; depute director qualifications development; director of qualifications development at SQA.

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