'It's not too late': New education secretary urged to cancel high school pupil assessments

Scotland’s new education secretary is under increasing pressure to halt the controversial senior pupil assessment process underway in high schools, and to sack the board of the “failing” Scottish Qualifications Authority.

A teachers' union has said it's not too late to cancel this year's assessments.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, which represents 6500 high school teachers, said “it’s not too late” for Shirley-Anne Somerville to take action to stop “the exams debacle” and ensure pupils’ grades are based wholly on teacher judgement.

Refused a place on the Scottish Government’s National Qualification Group, which was set up to prevent a repeat of last year’s exam result fiasco and develop the Alternative Certification Model (ACM) in place this year, the SSTA said 92 per cent of its members had found that the collection of “evidence” through assessments had created “substantial additional stress and unnecessary pressure on their pupils”.

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Further, only around a third of teachers said they had sufficient evidence to award the grade which they felt their pupils would have achieved in a normal school year – leaving major concerns around the appeal process.

School students, wearing face coverings, take part in a formal assessment.

SSTA General Secretary Seamus Searson said that his members would now be told to collate their own evidence based on past work, classroom discussions and subject-based conversations with youngsters, to ensure there would be more information on which to base any appeal.

However he said he would write to the newly-appointed Ms Somerville urging her to step in and scrap the whole system, and allow grades to be awarded by teachers.

“We have been very unhappy with the process, but it’s not too late to call a halt to what is happening in our schools to our pupils,” he said.

“We were not consulted on the ACM and we would not have gone along with its introduction at such a late stage given the pressure it is now putting on our young people, as well as our members.

Seamus Searson, Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association

"If it had been introduced last summer – when we were calling for this year’s exams to be cancelled – rather than cobbled together at the last minute, then it might have been workable. As it is, it’s not possible for pupils to be judged fairly.

"Until Easter the emphasis was rightly on teaching and learning, trying to ensure pupils were able to catch up on the weeks they had missed, but then as soon as the holidays were over many schools were straight into assessments just in case there was another lockdown, leaving pupils no time to prepare. Getting the evidence became more important than the youngsters’ wellbeing.

“If they were to be used as they are done when pupils are assessed at seven, 11 and 14, where teacher judgement trumps the grade on a test, that would be more logical, but that is not what is happening.

"The evidence from the ACM will be so mixed, it will be unreliable, as every youngster is in a different place and every school is doing things differently. Teachers’ professional judgement should be the priority. Evidence can support the argument for that judgement, but shouldn’t be the argument.”

He added: "The evidence the SQA talks about is written evidence, but that doesn’t measure the interaction teachers have had with their pupils, the discussions, the questions the youngsters ask – these things are important in knowing how much a pupil understands and never more so than now when the year has been so disrupted. It as though everyone’s forgotten there’s a pandemic.

“We also don’t understand why the appeals process is taking so long to made public. It is a worry – is it to prevent teachers from collating that other evidence? And what if the pupils do more written work between now and the June 25 deadline – can that be submitted and a grade changed?

"It’s a mess. There wasn’t an appeals process last year as ultimately after the debacle the minister stepped in and gave everyone the grades the teachers believed they would have achieved. That should have been the starting point for this year. But even now it’s not too late and we will be writing to the new education secretary asking her to act.”

Despite the worries of the SSTA, the largest teaching union, the Educational Institute for Scotland, which was party to the planning of the ACM, has said that while there are “challenges for schools and teachers” the extended deadline to June 25 would “maximise time for learning and teaching” and would give pupils “the best opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.”

A spokesman added: “The EIS has encouraged schools to take full advantage of the additional time created and the flexibility of the ACM in their assessment approaches, avoiding high stakes exam-diet type assessments, especially if timed too early.

"That results will be based on teacher judgement of students’ demonstrated attainment is fairer to students and offers a degree of protection to teachers who without sound evidence of young people’s achievement would be in a difficult position in seeking to award what will become final grades.

"Should students wish to contest assessment judgements, there will be the opportunity for them to appeal to the SQA. The full details of the process are soon to be published. In the meantime, it is essential that teachers are fully supported by all in the education system as they in turn endeavour to support young people to achieve their qualifications amidst what are a very challenging set of circumstances.”

However, adding to the pressure on Ms Somerville, is a demand by the Scottish Greens urging her to sack and replace the board of the SQA. The Greens’ call comes days after the exams agency missed its own deadline for producing guidance on how this year’s appeals process will work.

In a letter to Ms Somerville, the party’s education spokesman Ross Greer writes: “As you are no doubt aware, trust in the Scottish Qualifications Authority is now all but non-existent.

"While other public bodies have responded with aplomb to the unique challenges of the pandemic, the SQA last year presided over the single biggest scandal in its existence, has consistently failed to act in a timely manner and has clearly demonstrated a commitment to the ‘integrity of the system’ at the expense of students, teachers and lecturers. This has to end.”

Instead, he proposes a new model of management for the SQA with a board consisting of teachers, school leaders and representatives of parents and young people, with at least half the board members qualified teachers or lecturers. At present, the SQA board contains just one teacher.

He added: “The SQA is failing our pupils and teachers at every step in this process, but this shouldn’t come as any surprise. The exams agency’s failures were well known long before the pandemic hit. The government has simply consistently failed to fix the problem.

“The new Education Secretary has both the opportunity and clear justification to clear out the current board and force a fresh start, populating its replacement with people who actually understand education.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The alternative approach to certification this year was developed with partners from across the education system and includes trade union representation. Coursework has been reduced for most subjects and schools have been given flexibility around the timing and nature of assessments to give learners the best chance to succeed.

“We are working with schools, universities and colleges to provide support and to minimise disruption to learning, as far as possible, and plan for the coming academic year. We asked the SQA to review their appeals system for 2021 to ensure it best meets the needs of young people. Details are expected to be announced soon.”

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