Setting and revising standards

Learner reading SQA leaflet.Setting and revising standards is at the heart of our Qualifications Development Strategy (currently under revision).

The development strategy aims to ensure that all qualifications are based on accurate, fair, and consistently-applied standards, and that they are inclusive, facilitate progression, and meet Scotland's knowledge, skills and economic, social and cultural needs. We aim to make the standard-setting process as effective as possible through a combination of:

To set standards, or to revise existing standards, we provide details of:

  • the knowledge/skills that are needed, including a broad indication of where the qualification sits in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) (this provides a national benchmark of Scottish qualifications)
  • core and other transferable skills
  • assessment methods, etc

Learner in workshop.We also look to international benchmarks, industry or National Occupational Standards and equivalent existing qualifications standards for further guidance.

When we write or revise standards for a National Course or Group Award, we include the Units showing the 'statement of standards' in an 'Arrangements document.' This takes you through the entire process of developing the qualification - from why the qualification has been developed in the first place to where you might expect to progress to once you have completed the qualification.

These links to the Arrangements documents for the National Qualification in Geography at Higher, and for the National Certificate in Health and Social Care at SCQF level 6, will take you to some examples:

We benchmark standards across the UK, and internationally, where it's appropriate. This relies on an archive of assessment material and anonymised learners' work. This ensures that qualifications of similar types, and that serve similar purposes, all make the same level of demand and are 'worth' the same.

We also use the archive when setting standards to ensure that standards are comparable with previous years. It also helps us maintain standards when we determine grade boundaries each year.

Finally, once all of the development work has been completed, the qualification is now ready to be validated (or 'accredited' if it is a Scottish Vocational Qualification). You will find out more about validation and other topics mentioned by following the links below:

How do you set and revise standards?

Benchmarking standards programme

Our benchmarking standards programme compares SQA standards across the three qualifications families* (for example National Qualifications at Intermediate 2 with Standard Grade Credit or Intermediate 1 with Standard Grade General), and compares standards across the UK, and also internationally where appropriate.

*Please note that that this is different from our monitoring programme, where we compare how the standards of the same qualification, for example for National Qualifications at Higher, are being maintained from year to year or over a longer period.

Core Skills

Learner working at computer.While qualifications offer you the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills in particular subjects, they also offer you the opportunity to pick up more general or 'generic' skills, such as being able to communicate effectively at a certain level or being a good team player.

Some of these generic skills are known as 'Core Skills' in Scotland and 'Key Skills' in the rest of the UK. How they relate to each other is explained in the Core and Key Skills Equivalences Ready Reckoner (46 MB).

The Core Skills framework is produced by the Scottish Government and describes the general and specific skills of each Core Skill and their components across five SCQF levels (2ndash;6). The Core Skills framework defines the standards, which can be delivered in several ways:

  • dedicated ('stand alone') Core Skills Units
  • embedded Core Skills within a Unit and/or Course (naturally occurring or deliberately written into the Units/Course)
  • signposting opportunities to develop Core Skills through delivery of a Unit/Course

The framework is used by those designing and auditing Units, Courses and assessment programmes. You can get more information about Core Skills from the Core Skills section of the website.

Existing equivalent qualification standards

Information about existing UK qualifications (including standards) can be found from many sources. Here we provide you with links to the home pages of just a few of the organisations who tell you about qualifications and have a particular interest in how we maintain qualification and assessment standards



England, Wales and Northern Ireland

(Not all organisations operate in all three countries.)

National and international benchmarks

Benchmarks are reference points which we use to help ensure the accuracy and consistency of qualification and assessment standards across different subjects and over time in Scotland and internationally.

Smarter Scotland logo.In Scotland, we have the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). This is a way of comparing the complexity and volume of learning across the wide range of Scottish qualifications. It has been developed to meet the needs of learners, and brings together all Scottish 'mainstream' qualifications into a single unified framework. It covers achievements from school, college, and university, and covers many work-based qualifications. You'll find more information about comparing qualifications in Scotland and in the UK from the SCQF website.

European Union flag.The SCQF also helps clarify the relationships between Scottish qualifications and those in the rest of the UK, Europe, and beyond:

  • The National Qualifications Framework (NQF) sets out the levels against which a qualification can be recognised in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. For information about this, you can download the factsheet.
  • The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) is an example of work being undertaken to compare qualification standards across Europe. You'll find more information about this from the QDCA.

National Occupational Standards

Learner chopping vegetable.National Occupational Standards describe the knowledge and skills needed to do a particular task or job to a nationally recognised level of competence (or standard). Scottish and National Vocational Qualifications are based on National Occupational Standards. Awarding bodies, such as SQA and Edexcel, offer these qualifications through approved centers, which may be employers, colleges, or private training providers. The awarding bodies also provide quality assurance systems to make sure that assessment takes place properly.

National Occupational Standards have also become increasingly important for other vocational qualifications (such as Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, Professional Development Awards, National Certificates and National Progression Awards) because part of a qualification's 'fitness for purpose' is to prepare candidates for work. However, while Scottish Vocational Qualifications include National Occupational Standards directly, this is not exactly the case with these other vocational qualifications. For these, the standards are 'owned' by SQA (unlike Scottish Vocational Qualifications where the standards are owned by a particular sector via sector skills councils - go to the 'Who is involved?' section of the Scottish Standard web pages for information about sector skills councils).

Although the majority of National Occupational Standards are developed by an occupational sector via a Sector Skills Council, there are some that are developed by a standard-setting body or sector body (SSB). These SSBs can be professional organisations which represent a profession or industry.

You can find out more about National Occupational Standards at the Skills for Business website, where you will find the Occupational Standards Directory. Regulatory and awarding authorities like SQA can use this directory to find out what National Occupational Standards exist to assist us in approving and developing qualifications. SSBs do not form part of the Skills for Business network.

You may also wish to refer to our publication Using National Occupational Standards in the Development of SQA Group Awards (667 KB)  for a more in-depth discussion about how we use National Occupational Standards to develop qualifications.

Professional and industry body recognition

Some vocational qualifications also have to meet the approval of the relevant professional bodies, such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants for Scotland (ICAS) and the Engineering Council UK.

We work to ensure that all qualifications recognise knowledge and skills that are relevant and useful in the workplace.

SQA's archive of assessment material

Many of our standards-related activities, such as benchmarking and monitoring, rely on our archive of assessment material. This includes anonymised learners' responses (for example National Qualification examination scripts) for different qualifications.

We use this archive when we monitor standards over time, and it contributes benchmark scripts for Grade Boundary setting in the diet of exams for National Courses, helping us to ensure comparability of standards with previous years.

It also provides evidence for UCAS benchmarking exercises, as well as exemplar material and marking instructions for training purposes in qualification and assessment design and development.

SQA guidelines and guidance documents

Photo of SQA guidelines and guidance documents.We provide a range of guidance to help writers (also known as 'Setters' for assessments, particularly question papers) and Vetters (they support writers and Setters by reading over drafts of qualifications and assessments and providing feedback) carry out their work effectively.

To help us write inclusive qualifications that meet the expectations of all our learners, we refer to UK-wide guidance documents such as 'Fair Access by Design' and the Quality and Equality Learning and Teaching Materials (QELTM) (funded by the Scottish Funding Council and available from the Scottish Further Education Unit (SFEU) website).

For National Qualifications we provide guidance such as:

  • guidance documents for Principal Assessors, Senior Examiners and Setters. These include such publications as lsquo;Question Paper Production: Role of the Principal Assessorrsquo; which describes the role of Principal Assessors in setting question papers and in quality assurance. It also provides advice on the readability of question papers and a checklist to help avoid assessment bias.
  • Handbook for Examiners 2009 part 2: Finalisation, Absentees and Appeals
  • Guides for Writers and Vetters of National Assessment Bank items and Assessment Support packs.

The National Unit assessment page provides you with National Unit assessment guidance (including National Assessment Bank support materials) such as assessment exemplars:

You will find National Assessment Bank and guidance materials for our Access 1 and 2 level qualifications on the Access 1 and 2 website.

For Higher National Qualifications we have Unit D3A4 04 Develop Standards-based Units (22 KB) and a Qualifications Toolkit for centres, which is intended to help writers develop Higher National Certificates and Diplomas in a consistent way.

We also have a range of Higher National guidance documents.

These include:

For Scottish Vocational Qualifications, yuo will find the latest version of the SVQ Update from the SVQ Publications page.

For Professional Development Awards we have the PDA Toolkit and for National Certificates and for National Progression Awards we have Design Principles.


All SQA qualifications go through a quality assurance process called validation ('accreditation' for SVQs) before anyone can take them. Its principal aim is to ensure that SQA qualifications are of a high quality, are fit for purpose, and meet your (and Scotland's) education and training needs.


All newly-developed and updated qualifications are vetted against SQA's clearly-defined validation criteria.

We involve a wide range of customers and interested parties in our validation process to ensure that SQA qualifications meet expectations.

You may want to refer to the Guide to Validation for Validation Panel Members and Qualification Design Teams: Using the Design Principles for Higher National Certificates and Diplomas (606 KB), for more information about how the process works for Higher National qualifications, and to Professional Development: A Guide for Validation Panel Members (741 KB) for information about validating Professional Development Awards.


As we've seen, National Occupational Standards are 'owned' by the relevant sector skills councils. Awarding bodies, such as SQA (or Edexcel, for example) can use these standards to prepare a submission for 'accreditation'. This is what we do with Scottish Vocational Qualifications. We prepare a submission to SQA's Accreditation Unit, which considers factors such as quality assurance, assessment methods, accessibility, guidelines, and marketing information.

Follow these links for more information about the work of SQA's Accreditation Unit and about Accreditation criteria.


When we talk about inclusive qualifications we mean that they should be on offer to all learners who have the potential to achieve them, regardless of factors such as disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, social background, religion or belief and age

Facilitate progression

This is where we have done the groundwork to ensure that what you are learning and how it is recognised (qualifications) will slot into national qualification frameworks and courses - which supports your lifelong learning opportunities

Arrangements documents

For a National Qualification, Arrangements documents might outline the reasons for development (they'd certainly include a rationale) and would include some information about progression, but focus is more on the standard. Higher National and National Qualifications Group Award Arrangements documents are derived from validation documents and are likely to contain more detail about development and don't always include the Units, whereas National Course Arrangements documents do

Benchmark standards

We gauge and compare the levels of knowledge and skills which learners are required to achieve in order to gain different qualifications and draw conclusions about their accuracy and compatibility, based on our expertise and experience of looking at a wide range of qualification and assessment standards

Anonymised learners' work

We delete all details about learners from the assessment material which has been completed by them (for example examination scripts for National Qualifications) so that your privacy is protected at all times

Grade boundaries

We set the mark ranges for particular grades; so to be awarded a grade A, for example, you would have to achieve a mark of between 70 and 100% and so on.

Principal Assessors

Principal Assessors and Senior Examiners perform a very important role in relation to National Qualification standards of assessment. They compile draft external assessments and Marking Instructions submitted by Setters, participate in vetting and finalisation of draft external assessments after vetting, scrutiny of proofs and preparation of tapes (if applicable) in accordance with SQA's arrangements and guidelines


Is an attempt to match the reading level of written material to the 'reading with understanding' level of readers

Assessment bias

While we work hard to ensure that we treat all learners fairly an assessment may, unwittingly, place some learners at an advantage by focusing on particular topics, describing events or using language which is more familiar and directly relevant to them. This would mean that the assessment is biased in favour of learners of selected characteristics such as race or gender.

Embedded Core Skills

These may achieved by meeting the requirements of other qualifications such as Higher National and National Qualification Units, for example, which also give you the opportunity to achieve Core Skills

UCAS benchmarking exercise

UCAS, the University and College Admissions Service for the UK, is a points allocation system for university entrance. This benchmarking exercise is where a selection of our qualifications are viewed by subject and assessment specialists from universities and awarded UCAS tariff points.

Exemplar materials for training purpose

We use assessment materials and candidate responses (with all personal details removed) as the basis for organising workshops and training to help us improve how we maintain standards

Marking instructions/schemes

Examiners write these along with the assessment (such as a written question paper) and they show clearly how marks are to be awarded for candidate responses. You can see copies of these on our subject pages