The handling of this year’s examinations by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) caused widespread disappointment and provoked considerable anger among pupils, parents and teachers.
Although awards will now be based on teachers’ estimates (rather than on the computer modelling which had downgraded many results), the episode should not be seen simply as an ill-judged response to exceptional circumstances. Rather, it is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Scottish education, one which has roots in recent history and which raises questions about the flagship policy of ‘closing the attainment gap’.
In the year 2000, when a new Higher examination was introduced, the SQA found itself at the centre of a political storm. Thousands of students received wrong results, late results, or, in some cases, no results at all. The fallout was a severe test for the then Labour administration and the Scottish Parliament. Two parliamentary committees conducted enquiries and subjected senior officials in the SQA and the inspectorate (which was centrally involved in the development of the revised Higher) to close questioning. It emerged that concerns raised by teachers in the run-up to the new system had not been listened to. A separate, independent enquiry was undertaken by management consultants to identify administrative, procedural or management weaknesses. Information systems and data handling processes were judged to have been inadequate, but the errors would have been even greater had it not been for the efforts of some dedicated middle ranking SQA staff. The real failure was one of leadership and a desire by senior officials to tell politicians what they wanted to hear.
What were the main outcomes of this sorry episode (which is recounted in detail in Lindsay Paterson’s book Crisis in the Classroom)? There were personnel changes at the top of the SQA and, for a time, the inspectorate was cast into outer darkness – or, to be more accurate, temporarily relocated to the Saughton district of Edinburgh, a destination many teachers considered appropriate, given the proximity of the notorious prison. But, perhaps more significantly, the relationship between government and the SQA changed from a trusting ‘arms-length’ arrangement to one of ‘vice-like grip’ (as one observer of the time put it).
Fast-forward twenty years and we have had another SQA crisis. To be fair, the need to cancel the normal diet of examinations because of the coronavirus epidemic could not have been anticipated, and it was always going to be difficult to make alternative arrangements that would be deemed acceptable to everyone. It was agreed by the government and the SQA that teachers’ estimates of pupil grades would have to be subject to some form of moderation in order to ensure consistency and credibility. But the SQA failed to learn one of the important lessons of the debacle of 2000, the need to consult school staff and keep them informed. An original promise to have discussions with teachers, and to publish in advance the moderation techniques that would be used, was not honoured. This autocratic stance was extremely ill-advised (though not unfamiliar to regular observers of the Scottish educational establishment). When the results were released, they came under immediate attack on several grounds: the large number of teachers’ estimates that were downgraded (124,564); the fact that a higher percentage of pupils in socially disadvantaged areas (15.2%) had their results downgraded than those in more affluent areas (6.9%); the use of the historical performance of departments and schools as a basis for statistical adjustment of this year’s results.
Initially, the Scottish Government defended the process, mainly on the grounds that, without some adjustment, the results would have led to grade inflation and would have made it difficult to claim that standards were being maintained. But the outcry was so loud that political retreat became necessary. Accordingly, the education secretary, John Swinney, made a statement to Parliament in which he apologised for the distress caused to students and said that he would fix the problem by directing the SQA to cancel the original awards and issue candidates with new certificates based on teachers’ estimates. This decision solved the immediate problem but it did lead to substantial grade inflation compared with previous years: National 5 results have gone up by 10.7% compared with 2019; Highers by 14.2%; and Advanced Highers by 13.7%. Assuming exams go ahead in 2021, will the pass rates return to something like the pre-2020 ‘norm’? Whatever happens, there is likely to be a lively debate about standards.
What Swinney had to say about the Scottish Government’s relations with the SQA was particularly interesting. Did it show a reversion to an ‘arms-length’ arrangement or continuation of a ‘vice-like grip’? He did not shy from taking responsibility, acknowledging that he had set the SQA the task of producing the model which was used to moderate the results. Moreover, he made no criticism of SQA staff but admitted that, in retrospect, the wrong decision had been taken. He insisted that the SQA was ‘an independent body’ but that he had ‘statutory powers of direction’. One MSP asked that all communication between SQA and the Scottish Government in the weeks before the results were announced should be made public.
The SQA chief execurtive, Fiona Robertson, who, until last year, was Director of Learning within the Scottish Government, was quizzed by members of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee on Wednesday. Her performance was an interesting example of institutional defensiveness. She did not respond to an invitation to apologise for what had happened and managed to avoid giving straight answers to a number of other questions, being particularly evasive about the frequency and nature of contacts between SQA staff and Scottish Government officials at critical periods. She did admit that some statisticians were seconded from the Scottish Government to help with the development of the much-criticised computer algorithm used in the moderation process. Predictably reluctant to attribute any direct blame to politicians, she deployed a diversionary tactic, drawing attention to the role of the SQA board, whose members, she pointed out, were appointed by, and accountable to, ministers. There are doubtless advantages to all the principal players in blurring the precise lines of responsibility.
The recurring theme of MSP questions to both Swinney and Robertson was the effect of the approach that had been adopted on pupils from socially disadvantages backgrounds. Public protests by pupils, many with placards stating that they should be judged by their work, not their postcode, had made a powerful impact on the political debate. Swinney said that reducing the attainment gap had been ‘the defining mission’ of his time as education secretary.
Attainment Gap 1
The desire to close the attainment gap has certainly been high on the agenda. In 2015 the Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched, with new resources for schools. This was followed in 2017 by the Pupil Equity Funding scheme, aimed at reducing poverty-related educational disadvantage. Other policies can be seen as supporting this aim; for example, improved provision for early learning and childcare, to try to ensure that all youngsters get off to a good start in life. Nobody can doubt the good intentions of these policies, but the attainment gap has proved a remarkably hard nut to crack.
There is a substantial academic literature on educational inequality (see, for example, the 2014 Joseph Rowntree Report on Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education by Edward Sosu and Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University). What it suggests is that, while well-run schools with strong leadership, dedicated staff and good communication with parents can made a difference to the achievements of individual pupils, they cannot remedy the deep structural inequalities in wider society. All sorts of factors other than schooling are involved – poverty, ill-health, poor housing, crime, fractured families and communities, inter-generational despair. In the Scottish context, these features are systematically analysed in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) – and are powerfully conveyed in Darren McGarvey’s book Poverty Safari, which won the 2018 Orwell prize.
It is unreasonable for politicians to expect schools on their own to compensate for the complex set of negative pressures which some learners face. We need more honesty both about the scale of the challenge and the time-frame required to address it. Moreover, even with sustained efforts, there will be countervailing forces at work. For example, middle-class parents are able to maintain educational advantage through their economic ability to move house into areas with ‘good’ schools. They are also able to pay for private tutors to help prepare their children for national examinations. A cynic might see large parts of schooling as an exemplification of the Biblical text: ‘For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’ (Matthew 25:29). A less cynical person could still make a case for arguing that structural inequality is, in part, sustained by the selection and grading mechanisms of the school system.
‘Closing the attainment gap’ is an appealing political slogan but it cannot be conjured up simply by endless repetition and selective interpretation of statistics. It is a long-term project which requires deep thinking and a willingness to address uncomfortable issues. How well-equipped are members of the Scottish educational establishment to undertake this task?
Attainment Gap 2
As well as the disparity in educational performance between youngsters from ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds, there is another ‘attainment gap’ that needs to be considered – the gap between the rhetoric of government and its actual achievements. There has been too much of Boris Johnson’s ‘brag and bluster’ in ministerial defences of the state of Scottish education. This is not solely a tendency of the SNP. It started with the invocation of ‘excellence’ in the Curriculum for Excellence, which was launched before the SNP came to power. It continued with boasts about making Scottish education ‘world class’ and promising that all children would be ‘safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included’ (summed up in the cringe-worthy acronym SHANARRI).
The SQA on its website, with characteristic official immodesty, describes itself as ‘the heart of Scotland’s world-renowned education system’. More recently, teachers have been assured that they will be ‘empowered’ to exercise their professional judgement, rather than simply follow official directives. That rings decidedly hollow in the wake of SQA’s treatment of teachers’ assessments. There may be a price to pay, with some teachers on social networking sites stating that they will never again work as SQA markers.
It is not only politicians who have taken too readily to the inflated language of public relations, in which it is standard practice to promise big and deliver small. In the conformist culture of Scottish education, many senior members of the wider policy community (officials in national organisations and local authorities) have simply parroted the approved government line, claiming that progress is being made, even where the evidence for it is limited (or based on self-reporting).
Education Scotland, the principal advisory body on the curriculum, is an executive agency of government so it is perhaps not surprising that it acts as a cheerleader for ministers rather than a source of well-informed, independent advice. As for the various arenas in which policy discussions take place (such as the Scottish Education Council, the Curriculum and Assessment Board and the Strategic Board for Teacher Education), they are dominated by people who see their role as narrowly ‘representative’, speaking on behalf of interest and pressure groups, rather than subjecting policy proposals to sharp, critical interrogation, or even bringing forward fresh, new ideas.
At the heart of Scotland’s educational malaise is a serious deficit in the quality of thinking at the top. Such a climate is a recipe for the apotheosis of mediocrity. Too many of those in senior positions are ineffective time-servers, compliant functionaries or political opportunists.
Finally, perhaps one positive outcome from the latest SQA crisis is that classroom teachers will be more prepared to question the claims of their superiors. At the moment they feel demoralised – hardly the best mindset for returning to school after the Covid-19 lockdown. But, given time, they may begin to assert themselves more forcefully, challenging the vague ‘feel-good’ rhetoric and weak arguments of some policy documents, and showing less deference towards inspectors and ‘quality improvement’ officers. An extended period of turbulence may be necessary before Scottish education can reach calmer waters.
Figure from Sosu/Ellis, Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2014), via Scotgov ;