SQA defend 'patronising' exam support materials amid pupil and teacher anger in Scotland

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Pupils and teachers have accused the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) of failing learners by releasing “patronising” revision support guides which are intended to help tackle the disruption to learning from Covid-19.

However, the SQA defended its resources, stating it was part of a “wide-ranging package of support” that included changes to the exams themselves and the removal of some coursework requirements.

The body also said the material was the “fairest” way to retain the “credibility” of the exams and qualifications while also helping learners affected by the pandemic.

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The SQA was criticised for the quality of its revision support guides by pupils and teachers.The SQA was criticised for the quality of its revision support guides by pupils and teachers.
The SQA was criticised for the quality of its revision support guides by pupils and teachers.

The qualifications authority announced at the start of last month it was moving to ‘scenario two’ following “significant disruption” to learning caused by Covid-19 and the resulting pupil and teacher absences.

It added it would publish revision support to help reduce the stress and anxiety learners may be feeling and help narrow the gap between those who had their schooling disrupted and those that did not.

However, the SQA was forced to apologise on Monday night after the material was published early, leading to anger from teachers and pupils.

The SQA said the material had “not been communicated and shared in a way that learners or teachers have a right to expect”.

On social media, pupils also criticised the substance of the support offered, with one pupil labelling the revision guides “patronising”.

One said “never though that they [SQA] would assume we are so thick we won’t read the question before answering it, but here we are”.

Ewan Carmichael, a Higher pupil from Kilmarnock who has struggled both with Covid and mental health this year, told The Scotsman: “It absolutely does not match what we were told. I didn’t expect anything less from the SQA, but it’s just shambolic and insulting.”

He added: “It’s just course specifications for many subjects, which have existed for years. It’s bizarre that it took them so long to publish this copy-paste mess.”

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Teachers also criticised the material on social media, with one stating they were an “embarrassment”.

It is understood the revision guides received positive feedback from learners and teachers involved in the SQA’s development of the material, though the reaction on social media was almost universally negative.

Information included in the revision guides and support material include broad, high-level information on which topics within a specific subject may come up during the exam.

More specific information about what each question might cover was considered to undermine the credibility of the qualification and invalidate the assessment, it is understood.

They also include guides on how to answer different types of question and tips on how to approach the exam overall, including to remember to read the question.

It is also understood learner feedback during the development of the guides indicated this type of information was well received by learners and appreciated as a stress reducer ahead of what will be many pupil’s first ever exam diet.

Announcing the publication of the support materials, SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said they formed part of the SQA’s “substantial package of additional support”.

She said: “These revision materials and guidance are part of SQA’s commitment to providing a substantial package of additional support for learners, which includes significant modifications to this year's exams and assessments, as they make the final preparations for their exams.

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“The measures are the fairest and best way we can help support all learners, while also maintaining the integrity, credibility and standard of the qualifications.”

The SNP’s coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, labelled the support “woefully inadequate” and called for the materials to be “withdrawn and immediately revised”.

Ross Greer, the party’s education spokesperson, said the material was “insulting”, adding: “Many of these guides are full of bland platitudes and the kind of basic advice already being issued by schools and colleges.

"Extra support was needed, extra support was promised, but that is not what the qualifications agency has delivered”

Michael Marra, the Scottish Labour education spokesperson, said the revision guides were “downright insulting”.

He said: “After years of disruption and huge losses of learning, to be advised to check your spelling in lieu of any proper support is unbelievable.

“Even the handling of the release is emblematic of the shambolic SQA leadership. The papers were released, seemingly by accident, then retracted.

“Once again, the SQA has shown contempt for those it is supposed to serve.”

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Oliver Mundell, the Scottish Conservative education spokesperson, said: “Suggestions that pupils check their spelling is not what the SNP promised would be in these guides and will not help those struggling with their revision.

“Our schoolkids have lost trust in the exams board after suffering at the hands of the SQA for so long..”

The wider review of education reform, undertaken by Ken Muir for the Scottish Government, is expected to be published on Thursday and is likely to provide a recommendation for the future of the SQA and qualifications in Scotland.

Willie Rennie, education spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said it was time for the qualifications authority to be abolished.

The guidance was also criticised by education union EIS, which said additional online support was needed for schools and teachers to help those most disadvantaged by the pandemic.

The union’s general secretary, Larry Flanagan, said the revision guides were “insufficient mitigation” alone, adding: “It is critical that the young people whose families and communities have been worst affected by the pandemic and who have the least access to private tutoring at home, are fully supported in school to access the additional supports that are being made available.

"The EIS is seeking subject specific feedback from members on the utility of the revision support for their particular subject areas.”

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “I have sought reassurances from SQA that learners and teachers are getting the support they need to prepare for this year’s exams.

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“Over and above the materials just published by the SQA, significant modifications have already been made to exams to take account of disruption to learning. In addition, targeted exam preparation sessions will be available to those who most need it over the Easter break, on top of support available through the National e-Learning Offer.

“I will continue to listen carefully to pupils, students, parents, carers and teaching staff to ensure that fairness is at the centre of the exam diet.”

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