SQA Awards 2021: Deputy First Minister's speech

Deputy First Minister John Swinney's speech in the Scottish Parliament on 7 October 2020.

As we have just heard from the First Minister, further restrictions are now necessary in order to bring R back below 1, stop the virus running out of control and save lives.

This is not, however, a return to the spring. We are not closing schools.

Instead, keeping them open is the priority.

We all know just how disruptive COVID-19 is to the awarding of national qualifications. 

We found ourselves in a position where schools had closed with very little time to prepare. Course work was either incomplete or inaccessible.

And, of course, the exams could not go ahead.

There was no ready-made solution – we saw that from the fact the rest of the UK faced similar difficulties – but, in setting out our solution, the fact is we did not get it right for all young people. We apologised and we acted to fix the situation.

This year we have more time to prepare, but some things are still the same.

The virus remains with us.

It is still as virulent. It is still as infectious.

So, we cannot plan for business as usual. That is simply not possible.

Work towards exams would normally start back in May when the schools were still closed so pupils have already lost a significant amount of precious teaching time. And, we cannot predict – no-one can - how much more time might be lost to Covid-19 in the coming months.

Finally, we simply don’t know what Spring and Summer will look like in terms of the public health position.

But, what we can do is three key things:

  • we can learn from last year;
  • we can consult our teachers and educationalists; and
  • we can listen to the experts in the design of awarding systems.

And in every decision we take, we can hold fast to our shared aim to build an approach that recognises the hard work of individual pupils fairly and consistently. 

It must be an approach that does not place undue burdens on them or on Scotland’s teachers. 

And, it has to be an approach that has the confidence of the public, of employers and of the rest of the education system.

That is what we have been doing over recent weeks and I can now set out to parliament the progress we have made and the conclusions we have reached.

We have sought to learn from last year.

As I set out previously to Parliament, I commissioned two key pieces of work.

I asked the OECD to extend the scope of their review of Curriculum for Excellence to include the question of the role exams should play in a modern educational system.

That work will go forward in the coming months but to inform the coming year, I asked Professor Mark Priestley to carry out an independent review looking at events following the cancellation of the examination diet.

Professor Priestley has submitted his report and recommendations and I want to thank him and his team at Stirling University for their excellent work and, in particular, for the pace at which they have completed it.

Presiding Officer

We have also consulted widely.

The SQA set out its initial proposals on modifications to assessments in 2021 and, it is fair to say, they have never seen a more extensive response. Thousands of individual submissions were received. I want to thank everyone who took the time to engage with that work.

I have personally consulted with young people including with pupils in their senior phase who I spent valuable time in discussion with last Thursday. 

We have heard the views of parents, of teachers and of our colleges and universities.

And the issues have been discussed with stakeholders across our education system, including those represented on the Education Recovery and Qualifications Contingency Groups.

And, of course, I have consulted medical and scientific experts. 

Presiding Officer,

Finally,  we have listened to the experts in the design of awarding systems in the SQA, but also from our professional bodies, our local authorities, our schools and Education Scotland.

It is worth pointing out that all of this work comes at a time when the broader picture is one of an education system that has successfully returned to full-time learning.

Despite the virus, attendance remains at around 93 per cent for pupils. The additional safety measures and mitigations that we recommended and that teachers and staff have worked hard to put in place are working well. That has been confirmed by the Health and Safety Executive, which has now engaged with more than 500 schools on the implementation of the Covid-19 guidance. My thanks go to everyone for their exceptional efforts to reopen schools and deliver face-to-face education safely.

However, despite that progress, the virus remains the same, and the risk remains that there might be further disruptions for individual pupils, schools, colleges or more widely across the country during the course of this academic year. In that context, I have found the clear recommendations that Professor Priestley makes, regarding the approach to awarding in 2021 of great assistance to me in making decisions.

Due to the level of disruption that has already been caused by Covid and the likely disruption that some or all pupils and students face this academic year, a full exam diet is too big a risk to take; it would not be fair. Therefore, I have asked the chief examining officer to take an alternative approach to national 5 accreditation in 2021, rather than the usual exams. The alternative approach to awarding national 5 qualifications will be based on two key recommendations by Professor Mark Priestley.

Those recommendations are suspension of the National 5 examinations diet in 2021, with qualifications awarded on the basis of centre estimation based upon validated assessments and, secondly, the development of a nationally recognised, fully transparent and proportionate system for moderation of centre-based assessment.”

Therefore, the alternative approach will be based on teacher judgment, supported by assessment resources, and quality assurance. That will include, where possible, specifying between two and four pieces of work per subject that will form the basis of arriving at a final award. The SQA will today publish broad guidance on evidence gathering and estimation, with a very clear focus on quality rather than quantity of that evidence. That will be followed, after the October break, by subject-specific guidance on the key pieces of work that young people will need to complete.

To support the process, the SQA will work with Education Scotland, local authorities, regional improvement collaboratives and others to support a local and national approach to moderation and quality assurance, including the provision of assessment resources.

Obviously, we must seek to maintain standards. The SQA will therefore work with schools and colleges during the year on the quality assurance of their pupils’ work. That will include the SQA looking at a sample of work from each school and college and feeding back to teachers and lecturers to ensure that standards are maintained. The SQA will build that system of quality assurance in collaboration with the education system, drawing on its existing expertise. To put it simply, an A in Aberdeen has to be the same as an A in Annan or anywhere else.

I want to make it clear to the Parliament, given the controversies of the previous awards process, what will not happen. First and foremost, awards will not be given or taken away on the basis of a statistical model or a school’s past performance. There will be no algorithm. Awards will be based on the progress of our young people and their work. That work and the judgment of the teacher, supported by appropriate quality assurance to maintain standards, will be the evidence on which grades are based.

In taking that decision on national 5 exams, we also need to think about Highers and Advanced Highers. In a standard exam year, the national 5s constitute more than half of all exams taken. From a public health point of view, not having those exams significantly reduces the risk of the exams as a whole. It means that we can build an exam diet for Highers and advanced Highers that is as safe as it possibly can be, using all the coronavirus mitigations with which we have sadly become so familiar, including physical distancing and enhanced cleaning.

That means that the exams that determine the results with which most pupils leave school—the exams that determine most people’s future path into work, college or university—can go ahead as long as the public health guidance allows it. It also means that we can use the time in the school year that is freed up by cancelling the national 5 exams to make up some of the time that pupils lost at the end of last year. As a result, I can confirm that the Higher and Advanced Higher exams will begin on 13 May, which is later than normal and gives pupils back approximately two weeks of the learning time that they lost this year. Certification day will remain as 10 August. That additional time, in conjunction with the course assessment modifications that the SQA has made following its consultation, gives the greatest chance of those exams being implemented fairly.

While I am taking steps that make space for Higher and Advanced Higher exams next year, I am acutely aware that there is no way of knowing what circumstances we will face at that point. To avoid decisions being made in extremis, as quite simply had to be the case this year, a clear contingency plan will continue to be developed for those exams. That will include key checkpoints up to the February break to assess public health advice and, in the light of that, to reassess our plans. If necessary, we will award higher and advanced higher courses based on teacher professional judgment, supported by SQA quality assurance, taking account of classroom assessment evidence, including prelims where that is appropriate.

In deciding the way forward for this year’s exams, there is a reality that we must face. The coronavirus has not gone away - if anything, it is making a comeback. Our task is to build a system of awards that can be delivered despite coronavirus, and I believe that the plan that we have developed does that. It has evidence at its heart. It puts a robust system of quality assurance in place; and it works with teachers to award grades on the basis of their professional judgement. I believe that it is fair and rigorous and — of greatest importance — that it gives us the opportunity to recognise the achievements of young people in Scotland in these challenging days.

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