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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 March 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Justice for Families (Milly’s Law), Care Home Visiting Rights (Anne’s Law), Urgent Question, Point of Order, Education Reform, Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, Scottish Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund (Trustees), Scottish Human Rights Commission (Appointment), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Elsie Inglis


Contents


Urgent Question


Scottish Qualifications Authority (Examination Guidance)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on Scottish Qualifications Authority exam guidance, in light of reports of significant concern being raised across the sector, regarding the inconsistency and inadequacy of what has been provided.

The SQA is—rightly—operationally independent of Government. However, following the concerns that have been raised by learners over the past few days, the Government has sought and received written reassurances from the SQA that the revision support materials were subject to quality assurance processes, and that subject teachers and learners were involved in developing its approach to the materials.

The SQA will be making more detailed information available on the revision support process, including on the involvement of teachers and learners. The SQA has also agreed to publish information in relation to the modifications to assessment that have already been made as part of the revision support. That will demonstrate the package of support material that is available to learners for each course to address disruptions to learning.

I will continue to listen carefully to learners, parents and teaching staff to ensure that fairness is at the centre of this year’s exam diet.

This has been another truly pitiful week in this Government’s handling of education. Young people have called the guidance “insulting”, “awful”, “a joke” and “patronising”, with teachers saying:

“I am struggling to believe what I have just read”,

and calling it the “Mariana Trench of uselessness”.

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner has said that the guidance

“fails to meet the expectations of young people and the teaching staff who support them”.

The Educational Institute of Scotland says of the materials that it is

“consulting members on their utility”.

Teachers have called the materials “laughable”, parents have called them “inequitable”, and members of the Scottish Youth Parliament have been disconsolate.

“Read all the questions and check your spelling” is the kind of stuff that we shout down the path to our kids when they are going to their exams. What has been produced so far is far from meeting the expectations of pupils and staff that the cabinet secretary created. The materials are not fit for purpose and there are wide concerns about the lack of consistency in them.

When the cabinet secretary announced scenario 2, she said that

“the support is aimed at helping to reduce the stress for learners in preparing for their exams and allowing them to maximise their performance”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2022; c 30.]

Yet, again, the actions of the Government and the SQA are the cause of the stress. What urgent action will she now take to rectify this mess?

I mentioned in my original answer the action that the SQA, which is responsible for the revision support, will be taking.

A very important point, which I also raised in my original answer, is that a key consideration is what additional material could be provided, on top of the very significant modifications that are already in place, while we also maintain the integrity and credibility of the qualifications. There has always been a clear understanding that different modifications would have to be in place and that the same approach could not be taken across different subjects at this point. That is because the modifications that were announced very early in the process were different. The subjects are assessed differently and therefore there will be variability across subjects; because of that, the modifications will also be different across subjects.

In a small number of cases, study guides were provided, because specific revision support was not deemed to be possible due to the type of modifications that were made earlier in the process. However, I hope that the work that the SQA has said that it will do will provide some reassurance and context on the decisions that it has taken and the work that it published earlier this week.

I struggle to find much reassurance in that answer, and I think that parents and pupils will feel the same. We are now firmly in a third year of exam chaos. We have two years of disrupted learning, sixth-year pupils who have known nothing but disruption to their senior phase and a Government that, it seems, could not care less, as it will not even assess the full impact of what has happened to our young people.

When will the Government publish the full details of study support across Scotland, so that it can be scrutinised and improved prior to being put in place? What action is being taken to ensure equitable access to that support? It is now abundantly clear that the mitigations that are in place before the exams take place are wholly inadequate to deal with the scale of disruption that young people are facing. What extra mitigations are planned to deal with the exceptional circumstances in the appeals process? Who will the cabinet secretary work with to make sure that her appeals system—for once—actually works for the young people, who were insulted this week and have been betrayed for years by the Government?

I have to say that I inherently disagree with the member on the context that he sets for the assessments that were in place last year. A very large number of young people had been through exceptionally difficult circumstances but received exceptionally good assessment results in that process and have gone on to positive destinations. Although I appreciate that the process last year was exceptionally stressful and difficult for young people, they are to be commended for coming out with the results that they got.

The appeals process is, of course, a matter for the SQA, which is independent of Government. It has made available details on that process, and there will be further detail to follow.

When it comes to study support, a very important aspect, which members often ask me to bear in mind, is that we should not dictate from the centre what is right for every local authority or every school. Although on-going support through e-Sgoil and West online is available as we speak—this week and continuing—to support learners with their work, additional money, in the amount of £4 million, has been provided by the Scottish Government to local authorities to provide Easter study support sessions.

We appreciate and respect the fact that local authorities and schools will know best how to support learners in their area, so it is for local authorities to determine how best that money should be spent. I think that that is the right way to go about this—to trust local authorities and schools to know what is best in supplementing the support that they already had in place with the additional funding that we have given them.

There is a considerable amount of interest in this urgent question and I am minded to take as many of the supplementary questions as I can, but the questions will need to be briefer than Mr Marra’s; likewise, the responses will have to be a little briefer.

On 6 October last year, I asked the cabinet secretary to personally step in to sort out the SQA, and I was told that it had her “full confidence”. In reality, the SQA has presided over the most shameless shambles yet, with pupils and teachers being taken for fools. The support that is being offered is a joke and insults the intelligence of our young people.

Given that the cabinet secretary has refused to act on repeated warnings, does she now take full responsibility for damaging the life chances of our young people? If she cannot do the right thing and say sorry, will she at least guarantee that this is the last year in which the SQA is allowed anywhere near such decisions?

As the member will be aware, after this urgent question, I will make a statement on the future of our national agencies. I am clear that the SQA is, rightly, operationally independent from Government, and it will take the decisions that it needs to take on this year’s exam diet, and indeed on next year’s. The SQA will of course continue to do that in discussions with stakeholders, including young people in particular.

I set out in my previous answers the work that the SQA has undertaken on quality assurance, and it is determined to make that public to attempt to reassure people through that process about the work that it has undertaken on the issue. I refer Mr Mundell to that work when it is published.

This was supposed to be the grand plan to show that lessons have been learned but, for the third year in a row, we have yet more chaos. The expectations for the SQA were low, but there is now real anger and the cabinet secretary refuses to take more action. How bad does it have to get before the cabinet secretary steps in and does something?

I say once again that the Government has of course sought reassurances from the SQA on the quality assurance process that has been undertaken, and on the work that the SQA will now undertake to ensure that that that is made more publicly available. That will be particularly around the context of what is happening through the modifications, the revision support and, importantly, the on-going work through e-Sgoil and other online measures to support students, and the work that will go on at Easter. Learners can be reassured that that package of modifications, revision support and the support that is happening now and will happen at Easter will support them through the exam process.

It is extremely hard to imagine how the guides are the result of a process through which young people were consulted and genuinely listened to. Will the cabinet secretary expand on her earlier point about how young people were actually engaged in the process and say whether any SQA learner panels were shown drafts of the guides before they were published?

Ross Greer raises an important point about the input of learners. I point to the fact that, when we are talking about revision guidance that may include information on what will be in an exam, that context has to be borne in mind when sharing that information, particularly with young people who might sit the exam. If we are sharing drafts of that guidance on what will happen at the end, that will of course have an impact on the knowledge that those learners have about the exams that they may sit.

However, that is of course one of the areas on which we have sought reassurances from the SQA. It will make more information available on the quality assurance process and the role that learners played in it. However, I take the point that many learners have said on social media and in emails that they are concerned about the issue. That is why it is important that the SQA is taking proactive action to provide some reassurance on the issue.

I apologise to the members whom I was not able to call, but it is now time to move on to the next item of business.