Monday, July 12, 2021

Towards A new Curriculum and Assessment Agency in Scotland

Image of desks laid out in an exam hall


Less than a year ago I watched political machinations around national awarding in Scotland and made some observations based on the extended experience of both working for SQA  and around the vocational system in Scotland , the rest of the UK and internationally. In the end, events pretty much turned out as I predicted, even to point of there being local academics engaged in the review.  

Then, this June, 2021,  in the middle of awarding season, the government announced that the SQA is to disappear and be replaced by a new Curriculum and Assessment Agency.  This in response to a critical OECD Report. The implications of which are far wider than national assessment. 

So what next, I don't expect any of the provisional grades for candidates to change between now and August and I fully anticipate another record breaking set of candidate results. 
It will be the same picture across the rest of the UK, with the exception that England , Wales and Northern Ireland haven't decided to dismantle their national awarding and accreditation infrastructure in the midst of a pandemic. So, at least in Scotland, we have a ready made scapegoat come August. 

It is time to reflect on : what we need from a national awarding body, what we expect of support agencies, funding bodies, audit and inspection organisations.

They are all, in one way or another, part of the mix.

What is missing is any real form of national discussion around what the future of schools assessment and certification should be. The Scottish government response to the OECD report is big on headlines but thin on detail. The press, including the educational press, tend to stick to the shallow end of any debate on national assessment systems.

BBC Radio Four ran an excellent series simply around thinking aloud about Re-Thinking Education with one programme dedicated to looking at alternatives to the current school exam system in England. I am not a big Lord Kenneth Baker fan but his opinions on ending any form of national assessment for 16 year olds is worth exploring. his thoughts on an academic vocational split at age 14 are abhorrent. 

I am concerned on two fronts. The populist decision to abolish the SQA does seem to ignore the fact that one way or another a new agency(s) will simply rise from the ashes. The timing  is appalling given the stresses and strains on the system, but it is perhaps that simple political expediency that heralds many education reforms, give them the big news just before schools and parliament go into summer recess. 

Lost in this and the only bit that has ever been in anyway exportable is the vocational education system founded in early 1980s by SCOTVEC and buried in the merger with the Scottish Examination Board on the creation of SQA.

In the worst scenario, asset strippers in the form of private sector awarding or the 'not for profit' awarding bodies in England will gladly hoover up SQA's commercial and overseas business and the receipts they brought to support national awarding in Scotland. I wouldn't even be surprised to see elements of Universities Scotland hovering around this area. 

Watch too as the Scottish government struggles with regulatory and other awarding requirements, when potentially the only alternative is the open market.

If the focus is just on schools then a new agency or vehicle needs established to look after vocational awarding in Scotland. It needs to be new and separate from agencies like SDS or SFC who fund the qualifications. Perhaps this is the new quality assurance agency for Universities and Colleges mooted in the SFC review papers and lauded here by Ewart Keep at least SFC talks about the tertiary education system and working with SQA and successor bodies in their Coherence and Sustainability Review.

Clarity here is needed quickly, vocational awards are at the heart of any economic recovery strategy. 

The loss of the SQA brand will damage awarding and accreditation business across the UK and the rest of the world. There will be live business and business in the pipeline at SQA that will all be contractually under threat currently due to uncertainties here. I am guessing not much consideration will have been given to this. 

While this uncertainty remains, I expect to see an exodus of specialist staff and general system stasis. A new national curriculum and assessment agency is not a quick build even if built from the building blocks that become available from a reconstituted Education Scotland and components of the SQA. 

But what about school assessment and certification ? Will removing SQA, rather than reforming the assessment system, solve the issues ?

In my view incessant power struggles over school curriculum and assessment held the whole Scottish system back. They certainly held SQA back from 2003 - 2015 while I was there and they were delaying things like HN reforms when I worked in the College sector immediately prior to that. I am guessing now there will be further delays around the HN Next Gen work which the College sector badly needs. We need reforms too around qualifications in the work based learning sector.

If the new curriculum and assessment body has a sole focus on schools, you then lose a lot of the economies of scale around things like on-line assessment and digital certification and data management and the technologies that are needed at the heart of reforms and organisations of this kind. 

I'll post separately on where the opportunities lie for a new sort of awarding agency for the public good.

Where will consensus on school assessment and certification come from ?

The school assessment system with its narrow subject and exam focus was not really about SQA but an image of what teachers and governments wanted.  To have a more flexible system it starts with the teachers and schools knowing and applying national standards, no matter what subject area, this could be in any domain or discipline, you can then have flexible assessment policies , it could all naturally flow through from the experiences and outcomes.

The awards that currently exist are shaped by subject panels from across the Scottish schools system to design rules approved by the CfE Management Board.

Having worked through the development of Curriculum for Excellence . The OECD Report is spot on in highlighting the disconnect between experiences and outcomes and assessment system.

 I think there was a confidence failure across the system in tackling this - there were some deeper challenges too in the creation and management of the experiences and outcomes and how learners transitioned from broad general education into the senior phase. Heads should have been together on this in Education Scotland , SQA and the sponsoring Education Department. I would put this outcome down to the failure of the CfE Board of Management over an extended number of years. 

The default position for school teachers does appear to be a written national exam at end of year. 

The tech and systems have been in place for years to support more innovative forms of assessment and certification but the school system has fought , resisted  and won battles to keep the exam system and year long courses, while maintaining glacial speed too on any curriculum changes. 

While the civil service and local authorities continued to embrace systems that only recognised achievement in exam based subjects. Universities like this too. I hope there is now a confidence in the system to tackle this.  It needs to be tackled system wide.  There will be a real drive in many quarters to ignore any learning from the last two years and get back to business as usual

I fear further insularism - the awarding system in schools needs to place learners more at centre , subject choice should not be determined by which school and where it is located , assessment should take a variety of forms and be ready when the candidate is ready - not annually and teachers should as matter of course be able to make accurate estimates on grading, and certification should be digital by default. 

It is where we have been heading for last two years but without properly having a system in place. Some of the disconnect between costs , expectation and delivery are long standing and need to be addressed, if any reform is to be a sustainable one. 

"The SQA levy to local authorities and entry fees charged to independent schools and colleges for the certification of national qualifications have remained unchanged since 2012-13. These fees contribute to the cost of awarding. The costs of awarding National Qualifications are greater than the contribution made by local authorities, independent schools and colleges."

"Scottish government funding in the financial year 2019-20 to the SQA was £41.4 million but, in 2020-21, that figure almost halved to £21 million"

Source https://www.tes.com/news/exam-cancellations-save-millions-second-year

As they shuffle the deckchairs, I think the focus will be lost on the national vocational system. I hope, given we have now had two years without national exams, the school system can now flex. 

By the end of the review process we should no longer have an exam hall, paper based, national diet of examinations for S4-S6 learners,  we owe them more and we should not have  lost our vocational awarding system. It is a challenging balance.   

Watch out too for the purveyors of state-wide assessment systems , GCSE Awards, T-Levels , A-Levels , International Baccalaureates of one form or another,  door stepping , carpet bagging,  the review , the new agency , local authorities, schools and probably Colleges too.  There are lots of commercial interests and political interests that swirl around this area globally. I expect some Scottish schools will drift towards A Levels as the saga unfolds. 

I wonder too if any of the OECD Report writers can highlight a country that has achieved the vision within their report. It is a strong and achievable vision if the system can finally all pull together. 

Ken Muir has a challenging year(s) ahead.  My thoughts are with my former colleagues continuing to deliver for Scotland's learners within the SQA. 

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