SQA – The Root of the Problem

by Chris Noble

I have a tendency to look for the root of a problem – it is a curse that goes along with being a Physics teacher. I’ve written, rewritten and scrapped at least 5 diatribes on exams in Scotland and what we could do to make them better. However I came to the realisation that these were all window dressing: to make lasting long-term change in how we assess and accredit learning we need to change the system.

Not necessarily the exam system – though I would argue we should – but the system and rules of how qualifications are set. And this is where, to me, the problem lies. The Priestley report into the 2020 ‘algorithm fiasco’ was altogether damning of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Yet the SQA admitted they felt they had done nothing wrong. This feeds a perception of the corporate culture at the SQA being one of aggrieved, sometimes even spiteful, omnipotent lords of education whose motives are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. This arrogance can be seen in their frequent missing of deadlines and tendency to publish vital materials and information months after it was actually needed.

This is perhaps shocking, but not overly surprising. The SQA is held to little or no account for their failings. Not one member of the board or senior person at SQA has resigned or faced any consequences. Why would they? There is perhaps only one person the SQA needs to keep happy – the Education Secretary. Any system of power that relies on keeping so few individuals on your good side is a recipe for disaster, corruption and incompetence by its very nature (in political science this is known as ‘selectorate theory’).

So change, I feel, is not so much what we should do with exams themselves, but far more about how we can hold the SQA to account. If we get it right the system itself will encourage better decision making and improvements for decades. As I see it, the SQA should be held to account by three broad groups: the people, teachers, and experts.

The People already have a form of educational oversight – the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee. They can (and have) called upon the SQA to testify for them but lack any form of sanction against the SQA if they, say, miss a vital deadline or break a promise they made to the said committee. So Part 1 of my proposal would be to legislate via Act of Parliament to transfer sufficient powers to the committee, so that they are able to demand the resignation of SQA executive officers if necessary. In this way the SQA would have to keep the committee happy and their actions would be more fully open to public scrutiny.

Teachers have two main forms of representation; their unions and the General Teaching Council of Scotland. If the SQA had to get approval from these bodies before implementing changes the SQA would be forced to consider the reaction of teachers to its ideas.

Lastly, the experts. University courses are accredited by a wide variety of bodies depending on the subject. These bodies are already familiar with and deeply involved in determining if courses and assessment are sufficiently rigorous and whether the course content is appropriate and relevant. Requiring the SQA to seek accreditation of its courses would force the SQA to consider carefully its content and approaches.

Combined, I am convinced these three changes would force a culture change within the SQA and compel it to make better decisions not just for next year but for all years going forward.

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