C’mon SQA! Just. Stop. Digging.

11th May 2021

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.  It’s the first law of holes.  The SQA found itself in a hole months ago with its Alternative Certification Model: one that is creating unnecessary stress for young people while asking teachers to deliver the impossible.  But in the face of growing and valid criticism, instead of climbing back out, they continue to dig deeper.  Last night, around 5pm, they fired up the JCBs.  By issuing two statements – one that prescribes punishment for pupils already living through a crisis, and another that muddies the waters even further with an optional September deadline – the SQA pulled us all further into a deepening trench.  

But there is still a sensible way out.  

The first point to address is the lie at the centre of the whole thing.  Whilst issuing statement after statement using words like “flexibility” and “holistic judgment”, the SQA has simultaneously issued specific instruction to schools saying the opposite:

“You must base your provisional results on… question paper(s) covering as much of the course as possible… and further top-up question papers or extended tests” and that these must be in “closed-book conditions.”  These quotations are from the Physics guidance but there is similar wording for all the sciences, Maths, History and many other subjects.  The emphasising bold is the SQA’s. 

The soft public advice, about looking after learners, and the hard, non-negotiable instructions to schools simply do not marry. 

Demanding that schools do not hold exam diets compounds the problem.  This makes it brutally difficult to organise pupils who are entitled to additional time, separate accommodation or a reader and scribe, all of which bring staffing and rooming pressures. 

To say that exams have been cancelled this year is a lie.  

On the contrary, the pressures, anxieties and stresses that exams place on pupils and teachers have increased significantly. In an election campaign for a parliament where, after health, education is the most important devolved power, it is astonishing that this did not receive more attention.  Why was nobody talking about this?

Because when the Scottish Education system senses dissent, it closes ranks.  Most of the lead organisations in the system – such as the EIS, School Leaders Scotland, ADES and the National Parent Forum– are part of the group that has agreed the alternative model.  Have you noticed that statements are always issued by the SQA on behalf of the NQ21 group – in other words, making sure that ownership, and criticism, can be evenly spread?  

When Patrick Harvie read from one of these statements during the STV Leaders’ Debate we descended into what must be the most Orwellian moment yet in Scottish education: “the look and feel of these assessments may seem like an exam”.  Really, aye?  And yon white stuff falling out of the sky last week had the look and feel of snow. Because it was.  

The system is good at this game, but persuading members of the Scottish Youth Parliament to sign off on this statement it was a particular masterstroke.  (See, everyone agrees with us, even young people.  We must be right!) 

The two statements issued by the SQA yesterday follow in the same vein.  Firstly, pupils discussing assessments on social media – which could have been predicted by anyone who has ever met a teenager – is the fault of schools and “appropriate penalties should be applied”.  What exactly constitutes an appropriate penalty for talking about an exam afterwards?  In a country that was nearly shooting French fisherman last week, it’s probably safer not to ask.  

But that wasn’t the clanger.  In the second statement issued last night, the SQA acknowledged that it would be difficult to collate evidence, (i.e. to cram like crazy so you can pass), so schools could offer an alternative deadline date of September.  

This means that schools across the country could be faced with requests from pupils and parents who think that, given the entire summer holidays to study, they would be better placed to sit their non-exam-exams after the summer, thus crippling the move to the new timetable.  It could have serious implications for pupils who are trying with all their might to reach conditional offers set by universities and colleges.  Indeed, a great many pupils would do far better if they could study all summer rather than the cruel cramming that is being demanded of them right now.  

This kind of hands over ears, head in the sand approach means things keep getting worse.  The idea to extend things until September for some pupils (how on earth do you decide who can and who can’t?!) is a tacit acknowledgement that what they have asked pupils and teachers to do is impossible.  But instead of changing to a better model, they plough on down the same line that has already created so much unnecessary stress and anxiety. 

The rest of the statement explains all the good things the SQA have done and how much flexibility schools have, neatly preparing the ground for schools to take them blame when it inevitably goes wrong.  Again, this statement is issued on behalf of the NQ Group, with the implied endorsement of the EIS, SLS, ADES, National Parent Forum and Scottish Youth Parliament.  If these organisations really support this model, I’m not sure it is with the consent of those they represent. 

I should say clearly that I genuinely believe the SQA is staffed by good people who want nothing other than the best for young people.  The circumstances we are in are not of their making.  I think John Swinney is a good education secretary and I hope he continues.  But the January – March lockdown was not envisaged when this model was planned and we must hold our hands up and accept it is impossible and cruel to continue with it. 

There is a better way.   

Last year’s results were based on inferred attainment.  The problems stem from this year’s having to be based on demonstrated attainment and the prescription, in most cases, that it must be demonstrated through an exam.  

I propose the following solution:

  1. Issue a statement that immediately withdraws the requirement on teachers to use exams, “question papers covering the whole course” and all things of that sort. 
  2. Inject some real flexibility into the system by allowing teachers to use a balance of demonstrated and inferred attainment.  Remove all of the guidance about question papers being the best judge of performance. 
  3. Accept that it is simply unfair to expect pupils to have learned anything remotely near to a whole course in the last year.  Accept that teachers know and understand the standard and allow them to use a genuinely broad range of evidence, without the threat of coming after them for it, to judge how pupils might have done in a world without Covid.  We have far more evidence than we had available last year. There is no need to force kids to do exams as well.  
  4. Withdraw the September extension.  Instead of giving people more time to achieve the impossible, allow us to take an approach which can be concluded before the summer without having such a negative impact on pupil and staff mental health and throwing the start of next session into chaos.  

A friend who works for a bank told me recently about the supports his employer is putting in place to help staff re-adjust to the office.  Wellbeing talks, free gym memberships, team away days, phased returns.  Contrast that with the experience of Scottish pupils and staff returning to work: move overnight from an isolating lockdown to never-ending assessment hell.  

At Easter I received a desperate, dispiriting letter from the parents of one of the most intelligent girls I have ever taught.  Their normally confident, articulate and resilient daughter had developed a stomach ulcer at what she described as the most challenging and stressful time in her 13 years at school.  What a way to send her off to university (and she is a straight A girl going to the most competitive course in the country).  Our mental health referrals are through the roof and staff are on their knees. 

And all this during Mental Health Awareness Week!  And at a time when we have supposedly adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots Law.  Take a good look at articles 3, 24 and 29. Then speak to any teacher or Senior Phase pupil in Scotland.  Reflect deeply on what are we doing.  Is this really the best we can do?

And yet all of this can be fixed by the SQA – or the NQ 21 Group, if it really is a group – issuing a simple statement moving to a more appropriate balance between demonstrated and inferred attainment.  It would probably take their new Director of Communications about half an hour to type it. 

Come on Scotland.  Let’s stop digging.  


  1. I have emailed SQA and Education secretary with much the same comments. I CANNOT believe there hasn’t been a public outcry. Can you send your article to the media? BBC?


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