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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 07 October 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19, Scottish Qualifications Authority National Qualifications 2020-21, Urgent Question, United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, South-west Scotland Transport Infrastructure


Scottish Qualifications Authority National Qualifications 2020-21

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on the assessment of Scottish Qualifications Authority national qualifications in 2020-21. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


As we have just heard from the First Minister, further restrictions are now necessary in order to bring the R number back below 1, to stop the virus running out of control and to 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 in which schools closed with very little time to prepare, course work was either incomplete or inaccessible and, of course, the exams could not go ahead. We saw that there was no ready-made solution from the fact that the rest of the United Kingdom faced similar difficulties. In setting out our solution, however, the fact is that 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 and it is still as infectious, so we cannot plan for business as usual—that is simply not possible. Work towards exams would normally have started 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 do not know what the public health position will look like in spring and summer.

However, we can do three things: we can learn from last year, consult our teachers and educationalists and listen to the experts in the design of awarding systems. In every decision that we take, we can hold fast to our shared aim to build an approach that fairly and consistently recognises the hard work of individual pupils. The approach must not place undue burdens on them or on Scotland’s teachers and it has to have the confidence of the public, employers and the rest of the education system. That is what we have been doing over recent weeks and I can now set out to the Parliament the progress that we have made and the conclusions that we have reached.

We have sought to learn from last year. As I set out previously to the Parliament, I commissioned two key pieces of work. I asked the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to extend the scope of its review of curriculum for excellence to include the question of the role that exams should play in a modern education 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 to look at events following the cancellation of the examination diet. Professor Priestley has submitted his report and recommendations and I thank him and his team at the University of Stirling for their excellent work and, in particular, for the pace at which they have completed it.

We have also consulted widely. The Scottish Qualifications Authority set out its initial proposals on modifications to assessments in 2021 and it has never seen a more extensive response. Thousands of individual submissions were received, and I thank everyone who took the time to engage with that work. I have personally consulted young people, including pupils in the senior phase with whom I spent valuable time in discussion last Thursday. We have heard the views of parents, teachers and staff at colleges and universities, and the issues have been discussed with stakeholders across our education system, including those who are represented on the education recovery and qualifications contingency groups. Of course, I have also consulted medical and scientific experts. Finally, we have listened to the SQA’s experts in the design of awarding systems, but also to our professional bodies, local authorities, schools and Education Scotland.

It is worth pointing out that all of that work comes at a time when the broader picture is 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 judgment. 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.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask questions press their request-to-speak buttons or press R in the chat box if they are asking a question remotely.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. This has, of course, been an incredibly difficult time for teachers and young people, and we all thank them for their forbearance. However, we in the Conservatives believe that a full exam diet could and should take place next year, and that the onus is on the education secretary to make that happen or instead to justify why it cannot be achieved on his watch.

I am not convinced that full justification was offered in the statement for the cancellation of national 5s. It feels like the towel has been thrown in already. Nonetheless, I welcome the fact that a decision has been made.

Questions remain, however, so let me ask three. As national 5s will now be reliant on teacher judgment, how will the SQA apply national moderation to teacher estimates so as to avoid those estimates being downgraded by the SQA or overruled by ministers in the same chaotic way as they were this year?

Can the cabinet secretary guarantee that teachers will receive full guidance as soon as possible on how to assess the progress of national 5 pupils throughout the year?

If there is disruption to next year’s exams—I hope there will not be—and if highers or advanced highers cannot be sat, how can teachers assess progress if contingency plans are not announced or put in place until February next year? That is simply too late to revert or to announce an alternative. If the education secretary wants to restore the trust of parents, teachers and young people, he needs to get this right—and right now.

I echo the comments that Mr Greene made in relation to the contribution of teachers, which, as I indicated in my statement, I think has been outstanding in restoring the full-time education of children and young people and in sustaining education during really difficult times since the lockdown in March.

Mr Greene holds his opinion about the sustainability of a full exam diet next spring. I have carefully examined the public health evidence and the degree of risk that we would be taking were we to allow that diet to take its course. My judgment—and it is my judgment—is that the risks are too great. In coming to that judgment, I have consulted extensively within the education system, and concerns have been clearly expressed to me by local authorities, headteachers and pupils around the country regarding the implicit risks. However, it is a matter of judgment. Just now, the Government is addressing countless matters that are the subject of difficult judgment. None of that is straightforward.

On the whole question of moderation, work will be undertaken in the early part of this school year to support the understanding of standards within schools and to assist the moderation process at school and local level. The SQA and SQA appointees will be fully involved in that process at school level, and there will be engagement with teachers to enable that. Full guidance will be available at a subject-by-subject level and, as I have indicated, pieces of work to be issued by the SQA will form the basis upon which assessment can be undertaken.

As I said in my statement, the approach that we are taking on national 5 provides us with a foundation for assessment should there be any disruption to highers and advanced highers. I stress that I do not want that to be the case; I want a full higher and advanced higher diet to be undertaken, and I am creating more space for that to be enabled—I am de-risking it to enable that diet to take its course. However, should it be required, the approach that we are taking on teacher judgment and national 5 gives us a strong foundation for the higher assessment. Of course, as I indicated, we have opportunities to take stock as to whether such a contingency plan needs to be applied in the circumstances.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for early sight of his statement. I say “early,” but the truth is that his statement is very late. Teachers are months into teaching courses without knowing exactly what they should be teaching, how pupils will be assessed and what evidence they should have been gathering. They were told that exams would go ahead, although a final decision had not been reached, and they were told that courses would be amended to account for lost time, but not how, while days, weeks and months passed by.

Now we have a decision, so, first, how will the continuous assessment of national 4s and 5s and the exams at higher and advanced higher take account of pupils—sometimes whole year groups—having to self-isolate, and perhaps more than once?

Secondly, can the Deputy First Minister promise that, next year, no pupil will be judged on anything except their own performance and ability? Finally, will he, even now, revisit this year’s appeals for those pupils who do not accept their school’s assessment and are still denied the right to appeal?

Iain Gray recounts circumstances in which several periods of self-isolation, for example, might disrupt a young person’s individual educational year. In my judgment, that would be the basis for making a case to the SQA around exceptional circumstances—a well-established process exists for that to be undertaken. We obviously want to minimise such occurrences, so other support is in place, such as digital learning through e-Sgoil, which is available now to support the learning of young people should their education be disrupted.

In relation to the assessment of the performance of young people, I have made clear that their performance will inform teacher judgment, which in turn will be the basis of awards. In relation to the point on appeals, Professor Priestley’s review indicates that we should consider a number of issues with regard to the appeal mechanisms that are available. I am committed to doing exactly that and we will consider the issues that Professor Priestley raised as part of our review.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his statement and Professor Priestley for his contribution through the publication of his report. I noticed that the issue of assessment and estimation has been key and the Deputy First Minister mentioned that the SQA will produce guidance in those areas.

We know, however, that concerns existed before the Covid crisis about the estimation process in certain areas. What other support can be given to schools to ensure that the assessment and estimation process ensures fairness and consistency across all centres?

The whole process of assessment and estimation lies at the heart of the professionalism of the teaching profession. It is important that all interested parties, whether teachers and leaders in individual schools, local authorities or regional improvement collaboratives, work with Education Scotland and the SQA to ensure that we enhance the assessment and estimation process that teachers undertake. It is a fundamental skill on which our pupils rely in order to have their performance assessed.

Over the course of the next few months, extensive engagement will take place, which will involve all those different players—I have consulted widely with local authorities about the steps that need to be taken to ensure that teachers are well supported to be able to undertake that task, with the direction and guidance that the SQA will offer as part of the process. Fundamentally, we need to enhance that capacity and we will do exactly that.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the unprecedented pressures that the further and higher education sectors face at this time. Throughout the pandemic, those sectors have faced the Government’s lack of clarity, and the mess that it made of this year’s exam grades significantly impacted them.

What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with representatives from the university and college sectors on the subject that is specific to today’s statement? What concerns or issues did they raise with him?

I really do not recognise the picture that Mr Halcro Johnston paints. I would have thought that the fact that we had an absolutely outstanding and record number of young people going into higher education in Scotland today might have been something to celebrate. Where was that in Mr Halcro Johnston’s question? It was maybe as prominent as the Conservative U-turn on tuition fees. Maybe Liz Smith could not bear the policy position at which her party was about to arrive—maybe that is why she is no longer its education spokesperson.

I do not recognise the world that Jamie Halcro Johnston talks about. We have had extensive discussion with the college and university sectors throughout all those assessment issues, and I have to compliment them on their willingness to engage constructively in finding solutions at a difficult time.

What impact assessment has the education recovery group carried out on the assessment process for practical subjects such as sciences, home economics and technical subjects, which are vital to the curriculum but in relation to which social distancing is much more difficult?

Very specific guidance has been given to the education system on all those areas. The guidance has been developed collaboratively to ensure that some of the practical issues that Rona Mackay raises can be properly addressed and that young people are able to have as much of the experience of these courses as is possible, given the wider constraints within which we have to operate, and the education recovery group has been involved in that discussion.

The cabinet secretary has already stated his intention to take forward recommendation 7 of the Priestley report on the appeals process. Can he clarify the basis on which that review will take place? Will it be independent of the Scottish Government and the SQA?

No, it will not be. We will take it forward on the basis of the approach that would be expected of us, as a Government that is currently legislating to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic legislation, and it will be undertaken consistent with those principles.

I welcome the responsible decision to cancel and replace national 5 exams. I cannot work out, though, why that logic does not also apply to highers. Can the Deputy First Minister explain his statement that cancelling national 5 exams frees up capacity for highers, given that those exams do not normally take place at the same time and, of course, each higher exam cannot be staggered, as every pupil must take it at the same time?

In response to a question that I asked a few weeks ago, the Deputy First Minister said that he wanted to avoid at all costs an increase in teachers’ workload. Given that teachers will have to simultaneously prepare higher pupils for exams and prepare the contingency plan, I cannot see how that is the case. However, can the Deputy First Minister at least assure me that, for national 5s, the assessment system that is being developed will be based on work that teachers and pupils are already doing and will not add something new on top of that?

On Mr Greer’s last point, yes, that will be the case. The approach that will be taken is designed to be entirely consistent with work that would ordinarily be undertaken in each subject curriculum.

On the point around the maintenance of the higher diet, my judgment, given the significant weight that is attached to higher qualifications as the key pathway to the next stage in the educational journey of young people, is that, if it is possible for us to sustain that diet, we should endeavour to do so. That is what has underpinned my decision making. I have tried to de-risk the situation by removing the national 5 exams from the exam diet, creating more time for learning and teaching than would ordinarily be the case at that time of year and providing the opportunity for further progress to be made in that respect.

I am keen to ensure that that approach does not in any way add to teachers’ workloads. The point that Mr Greer made about the importance of that work being consistent with the ordinary content of the curriculum is a key guide for the education system in relation to how young people should be prepared for assessment and, in some circumstances, examination.

On the dates for the higher and advanced higher exams, does the education secretary think that two weeks is sufficient time for young people to make up the learning that has been missed?

A combination of that and the fact that the SQA will make other changes to the examinations that will increase, for example, the optionality within individual courses, which will mean that young people are not required to undertake every aspect of the course, will create the circumstances in which the full opportunity for learning and teaching can be undertaken by young people in that context. We will still be wrestling with issues relating to the potential disruption to the school year, either individually or collectively at a local level. The digital learning approaches that were taken were designed to provide further reassurance in that respect.

What will the Scottish Government put in place to support individual pupils and entire class groups who are asked to isolate—[Inaudible.]?

I referred to such issues in my reply to Beatrice Wishart’s question. We have in place a range of digital learning support, which is provided technically through the glow network and e-Sgoil—a partnership between the Scottish Government and Western Isles Council that has been extended to involve other local authorities. Good work is going on with teachers the length and breadth of Scotland providing learning to the digital learning platform, which can now be accessed by pupils from the whole country.

Further reinforcement opportunities are available for senior phase pupils—this adds to my response to Beatrice Wishart—as there are after-school sessions that pupils the length and breadth of Scotland can sign up to if they wish to. The sessions have been well subscribed to, as they provide another opportunity to reinforce the learning that young people undertake in our schools.

Given the welcome news that highers and advanced highers will go ahead, as far as we are aware, will the cabinet secretary put on the record that there is no intention at this stage to drop any of the subjects in the normal diet for highers and advanced highers?

To my knowledge, there is no such intention.

What assurances will the cabinet secretary give that the 2020-21 SQA assessment process will continue to build on the Scottish Government’s work to narrow the attainment gap to ensure that no pupil is left behind and that all pupils are able to achieve their full potential?

In these disruptive times, it is important that we do all that we can to support young people to achieve their educational potential.

As I have explained today in my answers to a number of members’ questions, a variety of approaches are being taken to support digital learning, which is already available and can reinforce the learning that is undertaken by young people. If there is a disruption to education, there are opportunities for that to be taken forward. We are working to ensure that, in every circumstance, we have in place the full support to enable young people to fulfil their educational potential.

The cabinet secretary highlighted the precious teaching time that was lost due to the lockdown and the impact that that will have on highers, which is why the decision has been taken to set later dates for the higher exam diet. What measures will be taken to ensure that the national 5 cohort is not disadvantaged by the time that was lost through the school lockdown period?

The young people who, traditionally, would be sitting national 5s will have more time, because, ordinarily, their learning and teaching would have ended at the Easter break and they would have gone on to study leave. Instead, they will have access to further learning opportunities after the Easter break.

Some schools change their curriculum and move on to another year group during May or June, and it will be up to individual schools to determine the optimal moment to do that. One of the key factors in that judgment should be whether young people who are presenting for national 5s have had adequate opportunity to maximise their potential in the estimating process that teachers will undertake in advance of submission at that stage in the spring of the final estimates to the SQA.

What support will be provided to pupils who have additional support needs to help them deal with the changing circumstances and to ensure that they have an equal chance of success with their schoolwork?

Ordinarily, our education system must ensure that the needs of every young person are met and that every young person has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. That lies at the heart of the answer to Mr McMillan’s question, which relies on the extent to which the education system can fully meet all those needs. I give him the assurance that that consideration is uppermost in the thinking of local authorities and of the Government on that issue.

That concludes questions on the statement. Before, we move to the next item of business, I remind members who are leaving the chamber to observe the social distancing measures that are in place across the campus.