SQA publishes its response to the letter issued by the Scottish Parliament Education & Skills Committee on 20 August 2020

Issued to the committee on Tuesday 01 September 2020

Dear Ms Adamson

Thank you for your letter of Thursday 20 August requesting further information following SQA’s appearance before the Committee on 12 August.

I will provide a response to each of the issues and related questions you raise in your letter.

Revised appeals process

SQA introduced a revised appeals process to comply with the Ministerial direction and this new process has been agreed with the Scottish Government. Your letter highlights the new grounds for appeals. This replaces the planned appeals process which would have involved a review of individual candidate evidence if the estimate had been moderated by SQA as part of the alternative certification approach. In keeping with the Ministerial direction – and the decision to accept teacher estimates – the revised appeal service does not include any review of candidate evidence and there is no further moderation of these academic judgements by SQA.

Schools and colleges were responsible for determining the estimates that were submitted and upon which grades have now been awarded, and so it is only the school or college that can request a change to that estimate. This aligns with our post results services every year. As in every year, we would of course encourage learners to speak to their school or college if they have a concern about the grades awarded.

Considering exceptional circumstances, such as illness or family bereavement, forms part of the normal awarding process every year. This year was no different. On page 5 of our Information on Producing Estimates document, we were clear that circumstances such as these that could have affected learner performance during the course of the year, in for example a prelim exam, should be taken into account by teachers and lecturers as part of the estimating process.

In terms of communications, an overview of the grounds for appeal was published on our website and issued to schools, colleges, and stakeholders, including those stakeholders representing young people and their parents/carers, on Friday 14 August. Further guidance on how to submit a request, timelines and the appeals process were sent to schools and colleges on Tuesday 18 August and communicated on our website on Wednesday 19 August, along with frequently asked questions aimed at schools, colleges, learners and parents/carers. We have also shared the information across our social media channels.

Communication

You have expressed concerns about communication. As I highlighted to the Committee on 1 May, the scale and complexity of the changes required this year, were simply unprecedented. As an organisation, we have worked very hard to provide as much information and support to the system, and across the breadth of our activities, as quickly and effectively as possible.

The focus of attention by the Committee has been on National Qualifications at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher. However, it is important to highlight that our communications and engagement have also been delivering information and support to our audiences on the full range of SQA qualifications and services – from National 2, National 3 and National 4 courses, National Certificates, National Progression Awards, Skills for Work courses, Awards, free-standing units at a range of SCQF levels, Higher National Certificates, Higher National Diplomas, Professional Development Awards, Foundation Apprenticeships – that are offered across a wide range of subjects in schools, colleges, employers and training providers in Scotland and beyond.

Appendix 1 (156 KB) to this letter provides an overview of all the announcements we have made on our website and communicated directly to schools, colleges, and stakeholders, since the beginning of March. We have issued 31 separate communications and 22 newsletters during Awarding 2020. I think this represents a significant volume of communications activity.

These messages have been broadcast through our social media channels, supported by interactive and informative content, such as digital frequently asked questions and a chatbot, that was used 20,000 times over the week of results, and were directed at learners, to provide information and drive traffic to our website. These have been widely shared by schools, colleges, and stakeholders, including national bodies representing parents, carers, and young people.

Since the beginning of March through to 31 August, activity on SQA’s Facebook page, and MySQA Facebook page has generated some 333,000 impressions, which have been seen by over 131,000 people, with over 26,000 users reacting to content on our page. Our Twitter activity through @SQAnews, and @MySQA_sam has reached 7.2 million users. Our website has also seen increased activity, with over 1.5 million pageviews of Covid-19 content.

For schools and colleges, our dedicated teacher and lecturer webpages, available since March, have information, support, and frequently asked questions. We have also provided resources that were ready for schools and colleges to use in communications to their parents, carers, and learners, as well as graphics to use on their social media channels.

In the context of National Qualifications, schools and colleges work with SQA staff hand in hand on a daily basis throughout the year. We have also updated and engaged with school and college management, local authorities, and representative bodies and professional associations.

Since March, our Liaison Team who engage directly with schools and colleges has been available for dialogue with schools, colleges and local authorities and have handled more than 1,000 enquiries about the implications of the alternative arrangements.

For learners and their parents/carers, we have provided support and resources on our dedicated learner and parent and carer web pages since March. We have worked, and continue to work and engage, with national bodies, such as the National Parent Forum of Scotland, Connect, Young Scot, the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, and the Scottish Government’s parental engagement network, to share information on what is happening and when, as well as ensure our messaging is clear for them.

Two young people have joined and participate in our Qualifications Committee, which gives technical, strategic and policy advice regarding our qualifications to our Board. We have taken part in online question and answer panels with UCAS, Colleges Scotland, Developing the Young Workforce and Connect. We have recorded question and answers for Young Scot to use through their social media channels. We have liaised with the National Parent Forum of Scotland to ensure they had accurate answers to the questions they were being asked. We worked with Capital Scotland FM to record a podcast addressing many of the questions regularly asked by learners about results and next steps, including appeals.

We will, of course, continue to keep the effectiveness of communications and engagement under close review. We regularly seek feedback from our customers – the schools, colleges, employers, and training providers that deliver our qualifications – on what they think of our products and services, and we use the insight to help us make improvements. There is always room for improvement, but I hope the Committee can see the considerable work that was done. We are considering further work to seek feedback on 2020, including from learners, to improve our communications offer. I am happy to keep the Committee updated on this work.

Appeals (post-certification review) Service

You ask specifically about communications in relation to our post-certification review process. We announced that we would offer a free appeals process on 19 March, to ensure that results could be questioned. Since then, we have communicated regularly with schools, colleges, young people, parents/carers, and their representative organisations across a variety of channels. We have clearly and repeatedly communicated that the Alternative Certification Model had four steps and that the fourth step was the free appeals service.

On 4 August, posts about appeals generated over 260,000 impressions on Twitter, and we had over 23,000 views of the appeals webpage. I also provided details of our appeals process as part of media interviews and communications on Results Day, as did Ministers. As I said to the Committee on 12 August, there was significant misreporting of our ability to handle the significant volume of appeals, following a press release issued by the Scottish Labour Party on Friday 7 August. I understand that we were not contacted in advance to check the facts, but we did issue a clarification to media outlets.

We were prepared for appeal requests and were committed to processing all appeals very quickly, giving priority, as in any other year, to those with conditional offers for college or university.

2021 Exam Diet

We are working hard to ensure there are appropriate arrangements in place for this session and we have been guided by The Strategic Framework ‘Excellence and Equity during the COVID-19 Pandemic’ published by the Scottish Government in May, drawing on advice from the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group chaired by the Deputy First Minister. I am also a member of this Group. Planning for Diet 2021 is underway, supported by a range of contingencies given the uncertainties of the year ahead due to COVID-19.

We have consulted on modifications to course assessment and changes to exam timetabling. The principles agreed to support any modifications, and in some cases, enhanced guidance to National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher course assessments, were:

  • the delivery and assessment of subjects that are constrained by current social distancing measures, for example, in practical and performance-based components;
  • increased learning and teaching opportunities, where possible; and
  • a more flexible approach to assessment for learners, whilst retaining the validity of the qualifications.

We have also taken feedback from SQA’s Advisory Council that includes a wide range of stakeholders including teachers, lecturers, headteachers, college principals, local authorities, professional associations, employer representatives, and parents/carers.

We thank everyone who responded to these consultations. In total, we received a very significant volume of responses - over 23,000 - from learners, parents, carers, teachers, lecturers, and stakeholders - including professional associations. A full analysis of responses is being progressed with pace. We fully appreciate that teachers and lecturers are seeking clarity now that the new session has started.

I will now answer your detailed questions on 2021, as far as that is possible at this stage.

Why was the consultation of contingency models for the timing of the diet sent only to the Examination Timetable Advisory Group, rather than opened up to all candidates, parents/carers and teachers as was the case with the other consultation launched on the same date?

The SQA says it will consult with SQA appointees who are involved in examining and marking procedures and young people on the timing of the diet. How will this consultation be carried out, and how will the SQA ensure that this consultation is with a representative sample of young people?

We have an established Examination Timetable Advisory Group that we work with every year to consult on the timetable. The group is made up of a range of stakeholders, including representatives from schools, colleges, teaching unions, local authorities, and parent groups. This group has the required technical timetabling knowledge to advise us on the practicability of the timetable contingencies.

A separate survey was issued to our appointees who undertake marking of National Qualifications, to understand if they would be prepared to mark if exams were moved later in the year.

We have met with young people and their representative organisations, Young Scot, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, to talk through and discuss the proposals. They welcomed the opportunity to hear information directly from us and shared their views on the consultations. As a result, we will be extending our learner engagement over the coming weeks and months and will include them in future exam timetable consultations.

What contingency models have been proposed, and what are the timescales for putting these contingency models in place should they be needed?

There are several different contingency models being investigated, including those suggested by some national organisations:

  • At an individual subject level (for example, modifications to specific subject assessment).
  • The timing of all exams and deadlines for coursework submissions in the 2020-21 session.
  • Changes to existing processes and procedures (for example our Exceptional Circumstances service).
  • Changes in the approach to assessment of level(s) of qualifications.

What, if any, alternative approaches towards assessing pupils’ grades has the SQA considered?

As I have summarised above, we have consulted on detailed modifications to course assessment and have received a very significant volume of responses. We are currently working through the analysis of these responses and will publish the outcomes as quickly as possible.

What contingency plans will be in place for subjects where teaching cannot be delivered in the usual way, or where social/physical distancing would impact classes?

What further details of considerations for subjects whose delivery and assessment may be constrained by current social/physical distancing can you provide?

We have proposed a range of modifications to the assessment of subjects where teaching and assessment may be constrained by current social/physical distancing. All the consultation responses we have received are helping us to make appropriate amendments to these proposed modifications in this very challenging year.

To what degree will the proposals support certification if there were significant disruptions due to national or local lockdowns?

We are considering how the contingencies, outlined above, will work in a range of circumstances, such as:

  • Full national lockdown – this would necessitate an alternative model of certification.
  • Local lockdowns impacting on schools and colleges – happening at a range of different times throughout the academic year and throughout the country requiring SQA to offer and agree extensions to coursework deadlines or alternative certification arrangements.
  • Individual learner issues leading to disruption up to or on the day of an exam – for such learners, alternative evidence is provided by their school or college and grades are awarded through SQA’s established exceptional circumstances consideration service in time for results day in August.

What scenario planning is the SQA undertaking to, if necessary, deliver alternatives to a traditional 2021 exam diet, and what are the timescales for consulting on these plans, finalising these plans, and thereafter ensuring these plans are effectively communicated to schools, teachers and learners?

We are undertaking detailed scenario planning based on the contingencies that I outlined above. However, they cannot be fully developed and implemented in isolation and we are discussing these further with the Scottish Government and with stakeholders.

Scottish Ministers will make decisions on the Exam Diet. Professor Priestley’s review has been asked to consider arrangements for 2021 in the absence of an exam diet and we are fully co-operating with this review.

If there is a need to estimate grades next year, how does the SQA plan to address the equalities issues which clearly emerged in the initial set of results communicated to learners this year?

Will the SQA commit to undertaking an Equalities Impact Assessment at an early juncture which will allow the wider learning community to highlight any concerns?

I highlighted the outcomes of the Equalities Impact Assessment to the Committee on 12 August and have previously outlined in correspondence our approach to this work.

SQA remains committed to ensuring we meet our obligations to the Equality Act 2010 and the Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) (Scotland) Regulations 2012. This will of course include, where appropriate, completion of an Equalities Impact Assessment and Child Rights and Wellbeing Impact Assessment.

Further questions

A timeline of our awarding decisions and related meetings is outlined in Appendix 2 (113 KB).

Minutes of SQA’s Board of Management meetings during this time have been published. Further information on the steps of the awarding process can also be found on pages 47 and 48 of the National Qualifications 2020 Awarding - Methodology Report, published on Tuesday 4 August.

SQA had regular ongoing discussions with the Scottish Government on alternative certification for 2020 and the Deputy First Minister received oral updates on the process.

Equalities and Human Rights Commission

We have been in discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) since the beginning of April, concerning the development of the Alternative Certification Model that we had been commissioned to deliver by the Scottish Government, following the cancellation of the 2020 exams. The discussions related to our work on the Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) of the model, and the importance of ensuring we considered the needs and disadvantages facing people with different protected characteristics.

We took on board advice from the EHRC during this work and they have not highlighted any issues with the EQIA that we published on 4 August, as demonstrated in their recent submission to the Committee. They have since asked for some points of clarification following the Ministerial direction on 11 August, to which we are currently responding.

I hope this provides helpful clarification on the additional issues you have raised, and we will continue to keep you updated on developments, as the 2020-21 session unfolds.

Please be assured that everyone at SQA continues to work extremely hard, in challenging circumstances, to deliver for learners.

Yours sincerely


Fiona Robertson

SQA Chief Executive and Scotland’s Chief Examining Officer