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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 2, 2021


National Qualifications 2021

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. Please observe those measures, including when you enter and exit the chamber, and please only use the aisles and walkways to access your seats and when you move around the chamber.

The first item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on national qualifications 2021. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement. There should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I welcome this opportunity to provide an update on the awarding of qualifications this year.

It is a privilege, as well as a huge responsibility, to have returned to the portfolio at such a critical time for Scottish education. The exceptional level of collaboration in supporting our learners, particularly during the pandemic, has been striking. I am determined that such constructive engagement be maintained.

Ensuring that our young people are kept safe and are able to achieve fair and credible grades in spite of the most challenging of school years has been, and remains, this Government’s absolute priority. I take very seriously the anxiety and concern that some young people, parents and teachers have voiced about the approach that is being taken—an approach that I and key stakeholders across our system firmly believe to be the fairest possible for our young people, in the challenging circumstances that result from the pandemic.

In responding to the concerns that I have heard, my statement will restate key principles about the model, provide detail on the support that is available to learners, set out how this year’s appeals process will work to support learners, acknowledge work to safeguard opportunities for this year’s learners to progress to further and higher education, and provide an update concerning the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of the curriculum.

The disruption that has been generated by the Covid-19 pandemic has caused this year’s national 5, higher and advanced higher exams to be cancelled. The national qualifications 2021 group was established in October 2020, with representatives of teachers, learners and parents working alongside local authorities, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Government to ensure that the hard work of learners can be fairly acknowledged. The group agreed and co-produced the model for this year, using its members’ insight and expertise. Education partners continue to support the approach.

Let me be clear about the assessment process itself. At the heart of the model are teachers’ and lecturers’ professional judgments, which are based on what learners have demonstrated that they have attained. Those judgments alone, based on learners’ work, will this year determine the grades that young people receive. Those grades will be based not on historical data or on use of an algorithm, but on what each individual learner has demonstrated that they know, understand and can do, through the work on which they have been assessed in school or college. That is the key difference this year, compared with what happened last year. My key message to reassure learners is this: your grades will be judged by your teachers, based on your work.

I am enormously grateful for the efforts of our teachers, lecturers and others in schools and colleges who are implementing the model in order to ensure fairness for all learners. To provide evidence of how the model is being implemented locally, Her Majesty’s inspectors of education today published a review of local authority quality-assurance processes. The key findings from the review provide independent evidence that the model is working well in practice, with local authority officers, headteachers, teachers and SQA co-ordinators having collaborated to ensure that young people’s efforts are appropriately recognised, and with local authorities having supported schools to implement the model to reflect their local contexts while working within a national framework.

Despite the best efforts, a very small number of learners who completed courses have over recent weeks, in particular, experienced significant disruption that has meant that they have been unable to complete their assessments. Contingency arrangements, on which the national qualifications 2021 group is publishing details today, are in place for later certification for that group.

I fully appreciate that there are people who disagree with the model that has been put in place. However, to them I say that teachers, learners, and parents and carers have been listened to, and that the model is the result of that. Awarding qualifications would always be challenging under the current circumstances, but we believe that the model that we have is the fairest solution in the interests of young people. That is not just my conclusion; it is that of the national qualifications 2021 group, too.

That is not to dismiss in any way the concerns and anxiety that have been expressed by some learners and parents who are experiencing implementation of the model at first hand. As a result, I am announcing today a package of support measures for those learners. Many of the supports are available now, and others will be added in the coming weeks. To date, we have provided more than £400 million in additional funding to local authorities to support schools to cope with and recover from the effects of Covid. That includes more digital devices, additional staffing and wider support.

We have continued to support schools and local authorities to deliver their vital role in supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. However, we recognise that young people might need further support, so a letter will be sent to the home address of every learner who is taking national qualifications, outlining the support that is available and providing links to online resources and helpline numbers.

Learners may well have questions regarding their progression beyond school. For those who will continue within education, the SQA, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and college and university advice lines will be there to provide support. Learners who are moving into employment can draw support from Skills Development Scotland’s advisers. We are also working with YoungScot, whose people will, as experts in successfully communicating with learners, promote the support that is available, through their social media feeds and website.

Every effort has been made to ensure that the hard work of learners is fairly acknowledged in the first instance, with learners getting the right result first time, but the appeals process is an important final stage in the certification process. The SQA will today publish details of that process. I confirm that the approach will, for the first time, include a direct right of appeal for learners, which I am sure will be welcomed by learners and their representatives.

It is right that in these exceptional times, there is, for those who consider that they have not received the right result, a broad mechanism through which to appeal, and that the mechanism is free at the point of use. To ensure fairness and credibility, the grounds for appeal are disagreement with the centre’s quality-assured academic judgment, contested administrative or procedural error within the SQA or the examining centre, and appeals that are related to the Equality Act 2010, including on assessment arrangements.

Education stakeholders have been clear that demonstrated attainment is a key principle in ensuring the credibility and fairness of qualifications. Appeal decisions will therefore be evidence based and symmetric, which means that grades can move down, move up or stay the same, depending on the review of the evidence.

I recognise that some stakeholders are not supportive of that position and seek an approach in which grades cannot go down. Although I am sympathetic to the position of learners this year, awards must ultimately be based on the actual attainment of pupils. That means that the subject specialist who looks at an appeal must be able to give their true judgment of a pupil’s attainment and to move the grade in line with the evidence. In that way, the appeals system will be fair, consistent and credible.

Without symmetry, there would not be a full and fair review of the evidence. That could be perceived as being unfair to other learners and could raise questions about the credibility of this year’s qualifications. In adopting a symmetrical approach to appeals, judgments at appeal will be made based only on an individual learners’ work, not on an algorithm or the school’s past performance. Although formal processing of appeals will not start until learners have received their results on 10 August, learners will be able to indicate their intention to appeal from late June, when provisional results are submitted. Support will be in place for learners over the period.

Our learners also need reassurance that, having received their grades, those who wish to continue their learner journey will be able to do so. We understand that the changes to the SQA process last year and this year might impact on students who are looking to undertake courses in Scotland’s colleges and universities in the new academic year. We will, via the Scottish Funding Council, continue to provide additional support to our institutions to ensure that students are able to take up places that they would not have secured without additional places being made available.

In 2020-21, the SFC provided universities with an additional 1,297 places for students who had been impacted by the SQA changes. In 2021-22, we will continue to fund those places while also having made provision for more additional places—currently estimated to be around 2,500—for new students. Colleges have also been supported to deliver additional flexibility within their courses.

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for our education system. It has sparked debate about the future of assessment and qualifications and about the best way to recognise learners’ achievements and equip them with the skills that they require to succeed on whatever path they choose.

Members will be aware that we extended the remit of the OECD’s review—to analysis of Scotland’s approach to assessment and qualifications and to development of options to enhance our approach. That work is on-going and will be published by the OECD in early autumn. However, I confirm that the OECD will publish its main report on the review of curriculum for excellence before then, on 21 June 2021. I look forward to discussing its findings with Parliament before the summer recess.

I relish the prospect of exploring a wide range of reform opportunities that will further improve Scottish education, but my immediate focus remains on ensuring that we do right by all the learners who are taking national qualifications this year. I reassure Parliament that everything is being done to ensure that the hard work of learners is recognised fairly, at a time that will, naturally, be anxious and stressful for many learners and their families. I ask members to acknowledge the merits of the approach that is being taken and to play their part in reassuring and supporting learners during these challenging times.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions. I will allow around 20 minutes for that, after which we will move to the next item of business.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

Last year’s exam chaos was unacceptable, but the failure to learn lessons is unforgivable. For us to be in a worse position now than at this time last year is a betrayal of our young people. We have seen inconsistent approaches from school to school, never mind local authority to local authority; confusion over what counts as evidence of attainment; and pupils being told that exams were cancelled then facing exams in all but name. However, worst of all, we have had confirmation today that SQA assessment papers are widely available online, on an industrial scale. On what planet is that evidence of a fair or robust system, and how on earth does the cabinet secretary explain the astonishing naivety and incompetence of the SQA?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I have said, I appreciate that people will like or dislike parts of my statement on different grounds. However, to say that this has been a failure is unfair not on me or on the Government—I do not expect that that is Oliver Mundell’s problem here—but on the other stakeholders who have worked on the national qualifications 2021 group.

I point out that the Educational Institute of Scotland said recently that the alternative certification model gives individuals

“the best opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned”,

while the general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, Jim Thewliss, noted earlier in May:

“The system that replaced the exams was never going to be perfect but all the way along no one has come up with a better way of doing it than the alternative certification model.”

I appreciate that people might not like the system that is in place but, having looked at the issue very seriously, the national qualifications 2021 group has concluded that this is the best and fairest option for our young people. The Government has not come up with this system, although we have worked very hard on it with stakeholders and others.

I realise that other aspects are causing concern out there, such as the issue of materials being made available online, which has previously been discussed in the chamber. However, I point out that teachers and lecturers have the flexibility to decide how and when to use materials and that there is not just one examination paper. That is very different from what happens in a usual year. The SQA has provided a wealth of materials that teachers can choose to use or not to use. Incidents of materials being shared are, of course, taken seriously, but this is very different from what might happen in a normal year, when, for example, one particular exam question might be taken on board.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for giving us sight of her statement in the past hour.

Just minutes ago, I was contacted by an angry mother, whose story is the latest of very many that I have heard. Her daughter is in the midst of taking 28 exams over 35 days—her friends have even more—and many of those exams have been scheduled for the same day. That situation is typical.

Following last year’s SQA scandal, the Government was instructed—in September, nine months ago—that young people must have the opportunity of appeal. On six different occasions, the SQA promised the publication of a robust appeals process but, time and again, it has missed its deadlines to publish the process and give teachers, families and young people the clarity and certainty that they deserve. The publication of the process, which we have not yet seen, is well over a month late and there are just over 20 days until teachers must submit the grades of their pupils.

Many young people have already completed the assessments, and the statement today confirms that those are high-stake examinations. Exam papers have been shared and exams have been retaken to improve grades and, through all that, teachers are struggling on to do the best for their pupils.

Despite the acute public interest, there is no real process in the cabinet secretary’s statement, and I do not see why it has not been provided. However, we agree that the appeals process has to be in the hands of the pupil, because the alternative is schools appealing against their own judgment.

Ask a question, please.

Michael Marra

What support will be put in place to ensure that young people can access their right of appeal? What evidence will be required for a young person to lodge an appeal, given that, for many, the opportunity to collate their own evidence has already passed? Please remember that many of the most disadvantaged pupils are among those who might wish to avail themselves of the process. How will young people know that their assessment process has disadvantaged them, given that the assessment processes are so wildly varied, in a thousand different ways, across hundreds of schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

There is variability across hundreds and thousands of schools because, otherwise, we would have central diktat from central Government, and Michael Marra would rightly point out that that is not the way to run an education system. Therefore, we have variability to ensure that schools can best put in place what is right for them and, most particularly, for their pupils. It is very important that schools are supported in that process, to ensure that there are national standards and guidelines.

I spoke about the work that HMIE has done and published today to provide reassurance about the standards and to ensure that there is variability that will support flexibility while remaining within national standards.

I strongly disagree with Michael Marra. Nothing that is coming from the Scottish Government or the SQA requires high-stake examinations. That is not how the system has been designed by the group that has been in charge and responsible for co-producing that work with the Scottish Government. An individual might have more assessments than they would have had set exams, but that is because teachers and schools are breaking exams down into smaller assessments to ensure that pupils are supported during that process.

Michael Marra talks about the support that is available. In my statement, I mentioned the letter that will be going out to learners, which is an integral part of the support that we will offer, but it is only one part of it. I also mentioned the grounds of appeal that will be available and further details on those will come from the SQA today. The evidence for appeals will be that which has already been collected for the exams.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. The lack of a no-detriment approach to appeals means that young people and their teachers will be taking a perverse gamble this year. Schools will submit the strongest evidence that they have in support of the initial grade. Why would they have stronger evidence that is suitable for an appeal but which they chose not to submit in the first place? It seems that the risk of downgrading is increased by an appeals process that is reliant just as much on demonstrated rather than inferred attainment and based on evidence that is likely to be weaker than that which was originally submitted.

I notice that the cabinet secretary mentioned that the national qualifications group signed off on the certification model. Has the whole national qualifications group signed off and endorsed that appeals process? Will young people be given the same opportunity, which teachers and parents already have, to ask questions directly of the SQA? Why does it appear that exceptional individual circumstances, such as immediate family bereavement due to Covid, will not be considered as grounds for appeal?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

There is a lot to cover in those questions, and I will try and get through as much as I can.

In my statement, I mentioned the symmetrical approach and I believe that that is the fairest way forward. Evidence of learners’ attainment will be judged against national standards, which ensures that learners will receive grades as consistently as possible in the circumstances. It is very important that grades are based on demonstrated attainment.

I appreciate that some people are concerned about the risk of downgrading. Downgrading is exceptionally rare. In 2017, eight people from 13,998 appeals were downgraded; in 2018, seven people from 13,063 appeals were downgraded; and, in 2019, one person from 11,138 appeals was downgraded. Even if downgrading is considered—rare though that is—we will ensure that a downgrading decision is further reviewed by the SQA to ensure that it is the right decision for the learner. The issue is taken very seriously, but I assure people that downgrading happens very rarely.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

One constituent told me that the model is the worst one that could ever have been used. It has led to stress, uncertainty and assessment after assessment, with no study leave. Pupils have told me that they have 16 assessments this week. It is a nightmare for teachers, too. Liberal Democrats have called for the reform of the SQA for years. There are no excuses left.

Last week, I asked about fast access to mental health support. The cabinet secretary says that this is a naturally stressful time, but does she accept that the mismanagement of this year’s exams has increased stress levels? Will pupils be given extra support to help with extra anxiety?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I absolutely take on board the response from Beatrice Wishart’s constituent. I assure her that those thoughts have also been fed back to me directly from some young people, parents and teachers. However, I also have to take on board the work that has been done by the NQ 2021 group, which remains supportive of the model that has been developed. That includes support from education stakeholders such as the EIS and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, which believe that the model is right and is the fairest mechanism that is available.

I appreciate that, in the education portfolio, there is not one ready answer that will be agreeable to all stakeholders, but I assure Beatrice Wishart and others that I have listened very carefully to people who have concerns about the model and to all stakeholders. I still believe, as does the NQ 2021 group, that the model is the fairest option that is available, and that we can reassure young people that they will get grades based on demonstrated attainment in a fair and credible way.

I am keen to take all members who have requested to ask a question, so I would appreciate it if we could have shorter questions and responses.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I pay tribute to the work of our schools, teachers and pupils at this difficult time. I am concerned about the volume of correspondence in my mailbox, as there are high levels of anxiety among parents and carers about the on-going assessments. How can the Scottish Government ensure equity and quality control across different assessment models?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will follow on from what I said to Beatrice Wishart. I am determined to ensure that the system is fair and credible. I believe, as does the NQ 2021 group, that every qualification should be based on demonstrable evidence in order for the system to be fair and credible.

The alternative certification model allows schools and colleges to have wide discretion on the type of assessments that can be undertaken. That ensures that the assessments are fit for purpose for their learners. For example, they can look at the range, timing and duration of the tasks that are available. Given that that system is in place, we can be reassured that there is equity and quality control, because of the national standards that underpin the system, to ensure that young people will get the grades to which they are entitled at the end of the process.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

Will the new appeals process give universities and colleges time to prepare for additional students? It is all very well creating additional spaces, as the cabinet secretary referred to in her statement, but that process takes time. I have spoken directly to universities this week, and they have raised concerns about the timeframe for reopening. What reassurances can she provide to universities and colleges across Scotland that the Government will work with them to provide a route map for reopening safely?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I assure Pam Gosal that we are in close contact with colleges and universities about the process and how it will impact on them. I thank Universities Scotland and the universities for the work that they are doing to reassure potential students about the support that is available as they go through the process

We are working carefully with the sector to ensure that universities can safely reopen for students and for staff, bearing in mind the public health limitations that we are under. We are determined to work with them to achieve that.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

I think the cabinet secretary for what she said about supporting students’ mental health at what she will acknowledge is a difficult time. How will that support be provided? Will mental health support be provided by schools or will the SQA itself take on part of that role?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is an important point, which I have looked at carefully. It is important that we support our young people through the process and that they know how to access that support. Much support will come through schools—for example, from the mental health counsellors who are available in secondary schools. The Scottish Government has supported that provision in the past.

We are also working to provide support for staff so that they can support their students. New online learning resources will be published later this month, and we are working with the mental health in schools working group to develop new resources that will provide support for school staff, parents and learners.

Provision is already in place in schools, and we will also provide new material to support pupils when their provisional grades are announced, at the end of the month.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The SQA has now posted the appeals process for 2020-21 on its website. It runs to only two lines and lacks detail about the evidence that children will need. It seems that the process will pit the child against the teacher who carried out the initial assessment, the school and the local authority. Does the cabinet secretary agree with her predecessor, who said on 24 March that the appeals process would satisfy the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, or does she agree with the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, who has said that the alternative certification model does not comply with children’s human rights?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I believe that the appeals process does comply with the UNCRC, particularly with regard to the direct right of appeal. To try to portray that as pitching pupil against school is exceptionally unfair and shows a lack of understanding of why the best way to provide for the rights of a child—or, in this case, a young person—is by giving them a direct right of appeal.

Pupils should have that direct right of appeal. They will be able to use that right in circumstances that they choose, based on the grounds for appeal set out by the SQA. A pupil’s first port of call should be a discussion with their teacher and school about their grades and the reasons behind them, but they should also be supported to take forward an appeal on the grounds that the SQA has determined.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the fundamental role of exams and on whether the way in which Scotland has certified attainment in the past is right for the future. The Scottish Government has said that it will look at that. Will the cabinet secretary say how that work will be taken forward?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my statement, the OECD has undertaken two pieces of work and was asked to expand its work to focus more deeply on the approach to assessment and qualifications in the senior phase of the curriculum. That has been informed not only by what happens here but by international good practice. That will be an integral part of the work that we and others will look at to determine the way forward.

I am sure that we must learn lessons from what has worked well and we must take the opportunity of a post-Covid world to ensure that our system is fit for purpose now.

Both OECD reports are an important opportunity, which I certainly do not want to lose sight of, to allow reform, if that is what the evidence suggests might be required. There will not be one single solution to this, but I look forward to taking part in the process with members here and with stakeholders to see what that future might look like.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary has claimed that teachers are able to exercise their professional judgment in producing estimated grades for pupils. That contradicts the SQA website, which states:

“Our key message to learners is that your grades will be judged by your teachers ... based on your assessment evidence”.

Who has provided the right advice: the cabinet secretary or the SQA?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

With the best will in the world, I think that we are in danger of splitting hairs and therefore misinterpreting what I am saying and what the SQA is saying. There is professional judgment in the assessment process—that is a central feature of the process. For example, in contrast to an examination diet, where teachers are not able to have professional judgment in place, this year teachers have direct control of the assessment process and the associated outcomes. Of course, as I have mentioned in the past, there are national standards to ensure a fair and consistent application of the process. However, teachers have an important role to play this year that they would not have in a normal year.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the SQA is aware that there was criticism of communication to pupils, parents and teachers last year and that decisions taken this year must be communicated with enough time for implementation by schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is important that the SQA, or any other Government agency, looks at the lessons that it needs to learn around how well we communicate to ensure that we are communicating in the right way to the right people at the right time. That is certainly something that I am determined to do, and I am sure that the SQA is determined to do likewise.

I mentioned the letter that will be going out to all learners, which will be very important. However, other work will also be done with key stakeholders to ensure that they are getting the message about the support that is out there and the work that can be done with pupils, parents and teachers to ensure that they know what is happening, why it is happening and when it is happening, and that they know about the support that is available during that process.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Can the cabinet secretary indicate when the appeals process will be completed, given the impact that that will have on applications for further or higher education? Student places are dependent on qualifications, so can pupils be confident that they will get their results in time?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Absolutely, they can. We will ensure that the results process will be undertaken on a priority basis so that those waiting for a result for a place in, for example, a college or university will be given priority. When people are making an appeal, they will have the opportunity to say that that is, indeed, the case, and the SQA will therefore know the importance of it. Obviously, learners will know their provisional results at the end of June, and conversations can start then with schools about the reasoning behind why the learners have received those grades. As I said, support is available during that process, but the final grades will be received and determined in time, as will the appeals.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

My question is also about appeals. Pupils and parents will want to know who is in charge of considering the appeals. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the people undertaking consideration of the appeals are experienced teachers with classroom experience and a clear understanding of the particular environment and circumstances in which the pupils’ assessments were done?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I appreciate that, last year, there was a great deal of concern, understandably, that decisions were taken based on algorithms or past school performance. This year, I can absolutely assure Gillian Martin that those who will be undertaking the appeals process are SQA appointees who are subject-specific teachers who know their subjects, will be able to work through the assessments and, using their professional judgment, will come to a view on the appeals on that basis. I can give the assurance to Gillian Martin and to young people that the appeals will be based on the understanding and professional judgment of teachers.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes the ministerial statement. I will allow a moment for members to move. I ask that they take care to observe the social distancing measures that are in place in the chamber and across the campus, including when entering and exiting the chamber.