Exams Scotland: SQA chief blames 'uncertainty' caused by SNP ministers for staffing problems at exams body

Fiona Robertson also raised concerns about proposals to axe exams for S4 pupils

The boss of Scotland’s exams agency has blamed “uncertainty” caused by SNP ministers for its struggle to keep and recruit key staff.

Fiona Robertson, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), said she had lost valuable officials as a result of plans to scrap and replace the body, which have recently been delayed.

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In evidence to MSPs, the nation’s chief examiner also raised a series of concerns about the “validity, reliability, practicability and fairness” of a proposed shake-up of school qualifications, following the Hayward review.

Students doing exams in a classroomStudents doing exams in a classroom
Students doing exams in a classroom

And Ms Robertson told Holyrood’s education committee she expected a controversial new exams appeal system to remain in place next year, in part because of “issues” around the grades predicted for pupils at some schools.

Scottish ministers announced in 2021 the SQA would be scrapped and replaced with a new body, following a report by the OECD.

The move also came amid a row over the way the authority had awarded grades when exams were cancelled at the height of the Covid pandemic.

The replacement body was due to be up and running by next year, but education secretary Jenny Gilruth delayed the legislation in June. This decision was made to take account of a series of reviews that have recently been published, including the report by Professor Louise Hayward, which proposes axing exams at S4 and creating a Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SDA).

With the new agency now not expected to be established until 2025, Ms Robertson told education committee members that SQA staff had faced a considerable period of uncertainty, particularly after the shake-up was announced in 2021.

"It did take unfortunately a number of months for ministers to confirm that there would be no redundancies, so that jobs were safe,” she said.

"I think that did impact, and I think we did see an increase in turnover, and we did lose some people that we would not have wished to have been lost from the organisation. Not only that, I think in that context it can be harder to recruit to an organisation that is not going to exist.”

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Ms Robertson said it took five or six months for ministers to rule out compulsory redundancies.

"There is no doubt that we have found recruitment and retention in that environment, and to an extent continue to see recruitment and retention in that environment, as more challenging than might otherwise have been,” she said.

Ms Robertson added that to deliver the new body there would “need to be investment in our systems and investment in our processes”, saying there was “quite a considerable amount of work still to do there”.

The chief examiner also sounded a note of caution over the proposals in the Hayward review, which are still being considered by Ms Gilruth.

She said it would “change significantly the curriculum models that would be in place in our schools”, and highlighted the need for consideration of the impact on subject choice and the numbers of subjects offered in schools.

On the SDA, Ms Robertson said it was vital to “consider very carefully any unintended consequences, particularly around equity and particularly around the personal pathway”.

Some experts, including Edinburgh University professor Lindsay Paterson, have criticised proposals to move away from exams for pupils below S5 and S6.

Ms Robertson appeared to also be alarmed at the proposals, saying: “I think there are already some concerns emerging around workload implications from some of the recommendations that have come up, but not only capacity, but capabilities, systems, technology that would be required to truly make this a success.

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"And something that I feel really strongly about from the perspective of my role as chief examiner [is that] there are some really important issues around the principles of assessment, around validity, reliability, practicability and fairness, that need to be at the heart of any qualification system, and that is really important.”

Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrat education spokesman and committee member, responded: “I think the fact that you’ve got a long list there is an indication of your anxiety, and I think that is a clear message to the Government about the process of reform.”

Validity and fairness were also raised by Ms Robertson when she was quizzed on a controversial exam appeals system, which this year has moved to a review of exam scripts, rather than checking alternative evidence gathered by teachers, such as grades at prelim exams.

The change from the system used at the height of the pandemic has been widely criticised.

Ms Robertson revealed the previous model led to about three out of ten pupils gaining a higher grade after appeal, which was a “little more” than would be expected after remarking exam scripts.

She defended the switch, saying: “The consistent feedback we got from markers was that there were issues around the sufficiency of evidence from schools and there were, in some cases, issues around the judgements that schools had reached around the estimate itself.

"And actually that does call to fairness. I dealt myself with a number of individual cases in which learners, through no fault of their own, had not been assessed properly, or indeed there hadn’t been an appropriate judgement made about the standard they were expected to achieve.”

The SQA chief executive added: "I have a responsibility around fairness, and actually I’m not aware of any other country that has an appeals service on the basis of alternative evidence.”

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Asked by Scottish Conservative education spokesman Liam Kerr if the existing model would continue for next year’s exams, Ms Robertson said: "I wouldn’t expect there to be significant changes to our appeals process this year. But we will reflect if we need to on the basis of the evidence that comes through from this year’s resulting.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is committed to replacing both SQA and Education Scotland. Work is underway to take forward their replacements.

“Ministers have given a commitment to staff within SQA and Education Scotland that there will be no compulsory redundancies as a result of this reform.

“The Cabinet secretary has said that she will use the coming weeks to examine the proposals outlined in four major reports on the future of education and skills in Scotland. This will allow key partners, including teaching staff, the opportunity to provide their views ahead of any Government response.

“It is our intention that new bodies will be operational in late 2025.”



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