SQA Coronavirus Update - Opening Statement from SQA to Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee

Friday 01 May 2020

Thank you Convenor. We welcome the opportunity this morning to discuss our approach to certification following the cancellation of exams in 2020. As the Deputy First Minister said on 19 March, exams in Scotland have been held every spring since 1888.  As an education system, we are therefore in a situation which is unprecedented and very challenging.

For the 138,000 young people who have worked hard and were due to start their exams this week, I fully appreciate that this is a worrying time for them and their families.

As Scotland's Chief Examiner, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that learners' work is rightly and fairly recognised this year and allows them to progress to further learning or work. I want to ensure the class of 2020 can hold their heads high, now and in the future, with their qualifications fully recognised as they would be in any year.

The cancellation of exams required us to consider, review and adapt our processes, in a very short space of time.  We consider contingency arrangements every year, including this year, but the scale and complexity of the changes required and at this time of year are simply unprecedented. I can give the committee an assurance that work has been taken forward at pace, to deliver results on 04 August.   

And while the focus of the Committee and my opening statement is on 148 externally assessed National Qualifications - across National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher - we have also needed to consider, with stakeholders, the full range of SQA qualifications - National 2, 3 and 4, National Certificates, National Progression Awards, Skills for Work Courses, Awards, Free Standing Units for National Qualifications, Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas - offered across a wide range of subjects in schools and colleges in Scotland and beyond.

Following the Deputy First Minister's statement and my subsequent statement on 19 March, I provided further advice on the completion of coursework on 24 March and the approach we would be taking to certification on 02 April, before the Easter break for most schools. Further, more detailed, guidance and advice were provided at the start of term, on 20th April. We have also provided a timeline of further advice and support to schools and colleges.    

Our approach is based on three core principles:

Results will be based on estimated grades. Detailed guidance and an online course have been provided to schools and colleges to assist with the estimation process. Teachers and partners from across education helped inform the approach and the guidance.

Estimated grades rely on the professional judgement of teachers and lecturers who are best placed to have a strong understanding of how their learners have performed and, based on their experience and the evidence available, what a learner would be expected to achieve in each course. 

I should clarify that an estimated grade is not just the result of one prelim or one project, because I know many young people have told us they are worried about their prelim performance, but is an overall judgement based on all activity across the year.

I have asked for more detailed estimates and candidate rankings this year, to give us more differentiated data to inform the awarding process. Schools and colleges are working hard to provide us with their estimates for each course by the extended deadline of 29 May.  I am very grateful for all the work that is being done to collectively deliver for learners.

We will then check and validate that information. We will moderate it, if necessary, to ensure consistency across schools and colleges and with results from previous years.

The moderation process is a key part of SQA's responsibilities every year to ensure that standards are maintained across Scotland - and this year across schools and colleges in the absence of external assessment.

Teacher judgement is at the heart of Scottish Education and every year effective professional judgements for assessment taking place in schools and colleges are supported, validated and enhanced through moderation.

This year, we are asking for internal moderation of teacher estimates, using a range of data and discussion within a school or college and we will also be undertaking a moderation exercise nationally, using a range of data and discussion and review. This is to ensure, as far as possible, that the standard of an A in one school is the standard of an A in another school and so on. There is no presumption that moderation is one way; indeed, grades could be moderated up or down.

The final details of the moderation process are being finalised and considered through our Qualifications Committee and Advisory Council next week before going to our Board, alongside details on our proposed appeals service, which the Committee will be pleased to hear is free. We have extended the external membership of our Qualifications Committee to advise us. This includes advice from young people themselves. I am, of course, happy to follow-up with the Committee and will publish further details at the appropriate time.        

In conclusion, we are working hard to deliver in this extraordinary year. We have had to take some difficult decisions, as circumstances have changed, but we are engaging with a range of stakeholders, to both inform our thinking and to ensure that concerns are understood and responded to in the right way. I acknowledge the points made by teachers and young people in the Committee's focus groups; indeed, we have had some very positive feedback from teachers and lecturers. Other exam regulators across the UK are wrestling with the same issues.

With the support of the system, including members of the Committee, we can provide the reassurance learners need - and the results they deserve - on Tuesday 04 August.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee this morning, in its first full virtual meeting. We are happy to answer your questions.  


Fiona Robertson

SQA Chief Executive, and Scotland's Chief Examining Officer