At the SQA, the summer break starts in October…

3rd August 2018 at 00:00
As the rest of the education sector takes a well-earned rest, Tes Scotland gets an exclusive look behind the scenes of the exam body at its busiest time of the year

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.

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, 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.

Brown is, 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.

Passion and care

Brown says: “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, echoes this sentiment. She says: “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. Brown remembers being shown the “procedures hall” in Dalkeith for the first time, where exam papers were held before winging their way to markers. She recalls 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. Brown says: “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.


The change has been phased in over the past five years and is the most significant development in the way that exams have been processed since Brown took the helm of the SQA, she says.

Not all markers were enthusiastic about this. Some did not like the idea of working off a screen, while others did not even want to operate a computer. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, the move was made.

Alistair Wylie, head of technology, engineering and construction qualifications at the SQA, says: “We offered lots of support and training, and that’s still available. As the years have gone on, we have started e-marking more and more, and more appointees have been exposed [to it], but it was a huge push at the start.”

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.

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”, says 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 it plans to introduce next year at Higher to compensate for the removal of unit assessments.

Hayward says: “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.

“High-stakes assessments that are our major way of identifying who gets access to future opportunities have been around for a very, very long time. What shifts is the balance between assessment work in the classroom and final examinations, but the fundamental building blocks of the system have remained consistent for a long, long time.”

She describes the SQA as a “highly professional” and “effective and efficient organisation”, but believes there is a downside to that: a lack of impetus to make changes.

She is calling 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 continues: “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.

“Having said that, exam systems are about your child and mine so we also have to take care that we don’t put any individual child or cohort of young people at risk. That tends to make us conservative in what we do; we don’t play with children’s futures lightly.”

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