Tess interview: Janet Brown

5th August 2011 at 01:00
With the SQA exam results out yesterday, there is no better time to ask the Scottish Qualifications Authority chief about appeals, maintaining standards and the new qualifications.

SQA is preparing changes to the appeals process. Can you describe them?

Fundamentally it's about trying to split it in two. There have been occasions when someone's parent has died the day before or they've had a serious illness; we want to look at a broader range of evidence for those sorts of candidates. Where schools believe a student just has not performed as they should have, they could ask for a re-mark or a review of the paper but that will be the limit. In general we've had a very positive response, because this approach focuses the appeals process on those who absolutely need it. We'll announce the details and timeframe in the autumn.

So prelims won't have as big a role to play?

No. And that really supports Curriculum for Excellence, which is trying to reduce assessment. You can learn and have formative assessments if you wish, but there's not this big push on prelim evidence.

What changes will be made to charges for appeals?

We need to reduce our dependency on the public purse and make sure that people pay for the things we're providing. We don't know at this point how much the whole appeals process is going to cost. We need to make sure we don't increase the costs to schools overall, but also that we're able to deliver it. The schools we've been talking to agree there should be a charge, because that makes teachers think about whether or not they should appeal. The ideal scenario would be that every appeal was successful.

How problematic is the rise in appeals?

It's an awful lot of work and an awful lot of expense. For schools, it involves making all pupils sit the prelims, collating all the information for those pupils; for us, it's about rehiring appointees to sit down and review all this evidence.

How confident are you that curricular change will not lead to qualifications confusion?

I think there is now a general understanding of what the new qualifications are and where they're going. The issue is making sure everyone knows the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework is the basis for all qualifications; National 4 maps absolutely onto Standard grade and Intermediate 1, for example.

Given all the changes, and that you will be measuring all sorts of things, how can you be sure of maintaining standards?

That's the nature of assessment. One of the things SQA takes very, very seriously is our responsibility for quality and the maintenance of standards. The testimony to that is that standards in Scotland have been maintained across many years, which is recognised by universities and businesses. It's very much about making sure everybody understands what we're looking for. We've done this in the past - qualifications evolve.

But this is the biggest change for a long time

Absolutely. But in no way is it unmanageable. It's actually a hugely positive opportunity to make sure that what we're assessing is what people should be learning - it's a great opportunity for us rather than something onerous.

What feedback have teachers provided on changes to qualifications? Have they taken part in consultation in the numbers you'd hoped?

Yes. We're publishing draft documents as we go along, which is new and in some ways a little more challenging for people. We've had 1,400 comments to the "Have Your Say" website since March 2010, and 349,000 individual viewings of our CfE webpages. There have been shifts as a result of the feedback - we created a new course in environmental science, and there's been a new skills focus in the maths courses. How we've responded to the comments will be put on the website.

What do you say to accusations from the SSTA that National 4, because of lack of external assessment, will be a "Mickey Mouse" qualification?

Internal assessment can be done at a high quality and to standard - you just have to look at colleges, where we have hugely-valued qualifications with high stakes that are all internally assessed but quality assured. This is a pro-active, positive thing for students and teachers, and does actually allow people to demonstrate what they can do.

What do you make of the mixed messages from universities who set a lower value on two-year Highers?

It's up to universities to set criteria that ensure they get the most appropriate students. Some absolutely do see a huge benefit in the flexible uptake that CfE will allow, in terms of breadth and depth. Some will demand a demonstration of "You're able to handle this much work in this period of time"; it's for universities to decide how they measure that. If you look at the response to the baccalaureate, they've seen that as a really good demonstration of what they're looking for in terms of depth, breadth and challenge. Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh have all said the baccalaureate is a great way for students to show their ability.

What has been the biggest highlight of your four years at SQA?

When I walked in here. I've never worked in a place where everyone is so committed to what the organisation is for. If you go anywhere in the world, SQA and Scottish education are recognised as absolutely quality. I was at a conference in Saudi Arabia where somebody from Australia was making a presentation and his example of good practice, for the whole lifelong learning system, was SQA.

Personal profile

Born: Sheffield, 1951

Education: BSc physics, PhD physical metallurgy and materials science, Birmingham University

Career: Science research, technology and business management in 19-year spell in USA, at Motorola, SEMATECH and ATamp;T Bell Laboratories; joined Scottish Enterprise in 2000, latterly working as managing director of industries; chief executive SQA 2007-present.

Photography by Chris James

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