University of Stirling education experts complete exam review

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A school hall laid out with blue chairs and single desks

A team of Stirling researchers led by education expert Professor Mark Priestley has completed an independent review into the handling of this year’s Scottish National Qualifications.

The review investigated the process through which National Qualifications were awarded in 2020, after exams were cancelled by Scottish Education Minister John Swinney, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The review, which makes nine recommendations, advises that next year’s National 5 examinations should be cancelled to create additional space for Higher exams, and calls for the development of a nationally recognised system for moderation of centre-based assessment.

Professor Priestley, University of Stirling, said: “This year presented an unprecedented challenge and the SQA, the government, local authorities and schools, faced an extremely difficult set of circumstances, with no easy solutions. While, with hindsight, we acknowledge that it would have been a near impossible task to adopt a perfectly working system that would have pleased everyone, it is vitally important we look back and learn so we can be prepared for the future, and avoid a similar predicament in 2021.”

Working with Professor Priestley were Stirling academics Dr Marina Shapira and Dr Andrea Priestley, and Research Assistants, Michelle Ritchie and Dr Camilla Barnett, who undertook the research and completed the report within 6 weeks. Titled: Rapid Review of National Qualifications Experience 2020, it draws upon a range of evidence, including stakeholder testimony, generated in panel and individual interviews, and analysis of relevant documentation.

During a statement to Parliament today (Wednesday 7 October), Mr Swinney extended his gratitude to Professor Priestley and the Stirling team for carrying out such a large task in a short time frame.

John Swinney, Scottish Education Minister, said: “I would like to thank Professor Priestley and his team at the University of Stirling for their excellent work and the pace at which they have completed it.

“COVID-19 continues to pose a risk of further disruption during the current academic year and, for that reason, I have found the clear recommendations made by Professor Priestley to be of great assistance to me in approaching the awarding of academic awards in the coming year.”

The full recommendations of the report are:

  1. Suspension of the National 5 examinations diet in 2021, with qualifications awarded on the basis of centre estimation based upon validated assessments.
  2. The development of a nationally recognised, fully transparent and proportionate system for moderation of centre-based assessment.
  3. The development of more extensive approaches to collaborative decision making and co-construction by professional stakeholders of assessment practices related to National Qualifications.
  4. A commitment to embedding equalities in all aspects of the development of qualifications systems.
  5. The development of more systematic processes for working with and engaging young people, as stakeholders and rights holders in education.
  6. The development of a clear communications strategy, co-constructed with stakeholders, to ensure that the extraordinary arrangements for 2021 are as fully as possible understood by all parties.
  7. A review of qualification appeals systems, including consideration of the rights and roles of young people, in the context of the incorporation of the UNCRC into Scottish law.
  8. The commissioning of independent research into the development and application of the 2020 ACM, involving full access to anonymised attainment data and the statistical algorithms used to moderate grades.
  9. The development by SQA and partners of digital materials and systems for producing, assessing and moderating assessment evidence, to ensure that operational processes for gathering candidate evidence for appeals is less reliant on paper-based systems.

On Wednesday 11 November, Dr Priestley and Dr Shapira gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament Education and Skills Committee on the report. The session can be watched via the Scottish Parliament website.