Coronavirus (COVID-19) - replacement of National Qualifications exams in 2021 session: equalities impact and Fairer Scotland Duty assessment

Equality impact assessment to consider the impacts on groups with protected characteristics and/or those experiencing socio-economic disadvantage of replacing the examination diet for National 5, Highers and Advanced Highers in 2020 to 2021 with an alternative certification model.

2. Background

Approach in 2020

As part of the Scottish Government’s initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Deputy First Minister announced that all local authority schools in Scotland would close and that the National Qualifications exam diet (scheduled for Spring 2020) would be cancelled, in light of the public health risks presented by the pandemic.

There was no established process for delivering National 5, Highers and Advanced Higher qualification results, outside the normal assessment processes. The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was asked by the Scottish Government to develop an alternative certification model to ensure that young people could receive awards that year. SQA developed a certification model[3], which gathered teachers’ and lecturers’ estimates in the absence of any other information and involved moderation of these estimates across all centres to maintain standards.

The estimates received by SQA in May showed a significant increase in attainment: at grades A-C by 10.4 percentage points for National 5s, by 14 percentage points for Highers, and by 13.4 percentage points for Advanced Highers compared to results in 2019. As a result of the SQA moderation process, around a quarter, or 134,000, of teacher and lecturer estimates of individual grades were adjusted, with just under 76,000 candidates having one or more of their grades lowered when compared to the teacher estimate.

Despite the headline improvements in the pass rate at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, and the fact that the pass rate amongst pupils in the most deprived areas increased by more than amongst those in the least deprived communities, the results left many young people feeling that their future had been determined by statistical modelling rather than their own capability and capacity.

In responding to those concerns the Deputy First Minister announced on 11 August 2020 that he was directing SQA to re-issue awards for those students who were downgraded, on the basis of original teacher or lecturer estimates. This policy change aimed to maintain faith in the Education system and give young people, from all backgrounds, the confidence that their hard work will be fairly rewarded.

The lessons learnt from 2020 have also informed decisions taken in respect of assessment and awarding in 2021. Equity and fairness have been key considerations throughout and this is examined below.

Return to schooling in August 2020

Following the return to full-time learning for all school pupils in August 2020, the Scottish Government, working alongside partners, continued to monitor the delivery of learning and teaching to ascertain whether there was disruption being experienced due to Covid-19 and how this impacted on learners.

This included monitoring school absence figures and continuous dialogue with key stakeholders (such as ADES, teacher representative bodies, parents and learners) to ascertain the feasibility of running the SQA exam diet in Spring 2021, with key checkpoints.

Simultaneously, the Scottish Government and partners across the education sector also contributed to the independent review of the 2020 National Qualifications experience, undertaken by Professor Mark Priestley[4]. This review was commissioned following the August 2020 results in an effort to capture lessons. The recommendations from the review have been considered in the context of this assessment.

  • SQA also conducted two consultations[5] one on potential adjustments to course assessment, and one on the timing of the exam diet.

These are considered more fully in Section 4: Methodology.

In October 2020 the Deputy First Minister announced that National 5 exams in 2021 would be cancelled and replaced with an alternative certification model. A further announcement was made at the start of December 2020 outlining that Higher and Advanced Higher exams in 2021 would also be cancelled.



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