Scotland’s councils ‘in discussions’ in bid to claw back millions paid to SQA

Scotland’s councils are holding “active discussions” over exam fees after it emerged they are paying millions of pounds over the odds for pupils to enter for qualifications.

A report published in TES Scotland from figures obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, found that schools have had to pay the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) almost £18 million more than the cost of providing the exams service this year – forking out the same amount as usual, despite changes to the exam diet due to the pandemic.

Formal exams have been cancelled this year and instead have been replaced by the school-administrated “alternative certification model” (ACM), which is not marked by the SQA.

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The report found this year’s assessment system costs just under £7m to administer – approximately £17.5m less than the £24.5m needed in a normal year. Schools, colleges and local authorities pay £29.2m to the SQA every year in the form of a levy, which is unchanged this year.

Formal exams were cancelled in Scotland this year
Formal exams were cancelled in Scotland this year

However, the SQA said the costs only include “directly identifiable costs” and exclude SQA salaries, overheads and related indirect costs. The body said the figures do not give a “full picture” of the total costs of awarding national qualifications this year.

It said: “The costs of awarding National Qualifications, even this year, are greater than the contribution made by local authorities in the form of a levy, and entry fees charged to independent schools and colleges. The levy and entry fees have not changed since 2012/13.

“Despite there being no full exam diet this year, there is still a significant amount of work involved in making sure learners receive the qualifications they deserve.”

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The FOI response says the current estimated cost of delivery of the ACM for 2021 is £6.9m, including £600,000 for quality assurance, a provision of £2.6m for appeals, £2.1m for IT-related changes and £1.5m for other delivery costs.

By contrast, the 2020 figures – also obtained by T Scotland via FOI – showed the biggest savings when the exams were cancelled last year were markers fees and expenses, which cost £8.8m less than expected; logistics and events, which cost £5.7m less than expected; and invigilation costs, which were £3.6m less.

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart MSP has condemned the “exams tax” and called for a refund.

Ms Wishart said: “Schools shouldn’t have had to pay an exams tax to the SQA this year. They’ve had almost nothing in return. A refund is surely now in order, and I will be writing to the education secretary to make that clear.”

A spokeswoman for Cosla, which represents most of Scotland’s local authorities, said: “Councils have worked productively with suppliers and providers across a range of service areas throughout the pandemic to find reasonable approach to payments.

“In recognition that resources have been required within local authorities to support the alternative certification model, and in line with our wider principled approach to payments for suppliers, we have held very initial discussions with the SQA around the annual levy paid by local authorities for 2021.”

She added: "These are active discussions, which we are not able to provide any further comment on at this time.”

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