Examination Papers

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9th May 2017.

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Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

2. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the decision by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to restrict teachers’ access to exam papers after the exam has been taken to prevent “inappropriate postings” on social media. (S5T-00536)

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has taken that decision in response to concerns that social media posts that included answers to questions were being viewed by candidates immediately after exams had concluded, which caused additional stress for candidates. The intervening period afforded by the new arrangements is intended to reduce that potential negative impact on candidates. As it does with all operational changes, the SQA will review how the new arrangements have worked over the course of the 2017 exam diet. In consultation with stakeholders, it will then consider whether any changes are necessary for the 2018 diet.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

To be clear, the SQA’s rationale for restricting access to the paper after the exam has taken place is about nothing more than avoiding negative press over any errors that it has made—errors that have, unfortunately, become an annual occurrence.

The reality is that the period immediately after an exam is often one of the most anxious for pupils. The opportunity to seek reassurance, or at least clarity, from their teachers while the exam is fresh in their minds is invaluable. What effect does the Scottish Government believe that this decision will have on the levels of stress and anxiety that pupils feel during the exam season?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

As I indicated in my original response to Ross Greer, the SQA’s decision has been taken directly for the reasons that I have publicly put on record: to reduce additional stress for candidates as a consequence of some of the practice that has taken place.

When I looked into the matter, I looked at correspondence from parents giving their views and their experiences of social media posts—not posts about the accuracy of examination papers but posts about the presentation of answers, which caused immediate stress for candidates in the immediate aftermath of the examination. It is for that reason that the SQA has taken the decision that it has.

From the exchanges that we have had at the Education and Skills Committee, Mr Greer will know that I have made clear—I have made this clear in the chamber as well as at the committee—the necessity of accuracy in SQA examination papers, which must be maintained at all times. I have written to the chief executive of the SQA to make that point to her.

Those are two very separate issues. As I indicated in my answer, the SQA will look at this particular operational decision in the light of experience in 2017 and in consultation with stakeholders.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

The reality is that exam papers will be discussed immediately after the exam. The difference now is that they will be discussed in the first 24 hours without accuracy and without teachers being able to reassure their pupils.

As the Government is aware, in January the Education and Skills Committee published a report, which was agreed by consensus, that was nothing short of damning of the SQA. The evidence that was received from teachers in particular was, in the convener’s words,

“nothing less than eye opening”.

It is quite clear that teachers’ trust in the SQA has broken down. The Educational Institute of Scotland has said that that shows that the SQA lacks trust in teachers. What effect does the Scottish Government believe that that message—that the SQA does not trust teachers—will have on teachers’ trust in the exam authority?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have to say that I do not see it that way at all. As a country, we need a trusted and respected examination authority, not to satisfy me but to ensure that candidates have reliable certification of their achievements. I am determined to ensure that the SQA carries that respect among candidates and among teachers. I want to ensure that the SQA works in that fashion, and I have seen first hand a sustained effort by the SQA to ensure that it does so. The reason why we must ensure that it is successful is that confidence in and the credibility of examination certification, on which thousands and thousands of young people in our country depend every year, must be assured at all times.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

What confuses me is why the period is 24 hours. If the cabinet secretary’s answer is correct, surely there should be no posting on Facebook until the results are announced. Why the 24-hour period, which seems completely arbitrary? How was that figure reached?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The SQA’s rationale, as it has been explained to me, is that delaying the availability of papers until the following day provides for a period in the aftermath of the examination for views and experiences to settle, and for more considered advice to be given and more dialogue to take place with teachers. That is the rationale for the change that the SQA has made.

I should also make it clear—this is an important point about my relationship with the SQA—that the SQA is an independent examination certification body that must be able to take operational decisions that it judges within its remit to be appropriate. It is not for a minister to dictate decisions on the proper operational functions of the SQA.

I will reiterate to Jeremy Balfour the point that I made to Ross Greer in my earlier responses: the SQA will review the arrangements, to determine what their effect has been on candidates and their experiences during the 2017 diet.