Sean Bell: Burn down the SQA

“Given the choice between being ‘credible’ and being fair, a choice was made that strengthened inequality and erected roadblocks to social mobility for the poorest and most disadvantaged. In a just world, it would be the SQA and the Scottish Government that bore the consequences of that decision. In this one, that price will be paid by the nation’s youth”

THE SCOTTISH QUALIFICATIONS AUTHORITY is not, at the best of times, a beloved institution.

I suspect those working within the organisation view the reactions it generally inspires – particularly from those poor suckers whose futures hinge upon its capricious bureaucracy – with the same philosophy as the taxman or the traffic warden. People might not like them, but they have a job to do; no one welcomes the bearer of bad news, but they are an instrument of policy. Before yesterday, some might consider this a rationalisation. Today, it is more accurate to call it a lie.

When exam results arrive, it is not unusual for there to be a good deal of young people who believe, often with ample justification, that the SQA has screwed them over. What is unusual, beyond the extraordinary circumstances created by Covid-19, is for proof of this to be so nakedly obvious.

So cemented is its position within our educational establishment, Scotland’s exam authority is rarely put on the defensive; for the foreseeable future, they will have to get used to it. After tasking schools across the country with predicting the results for Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers in lieu of Coronavirus-cancelled exams, the SQA amended 133,000 entries, rejecting 124,000-recommended results in favour of mass-downgrading. This moderation was based upon the past performance of schools in exam results, creating a “class divide” that has led to thousands of teenagers who, despite performing highly in prelims and receiving promising grades throughout the year, have been judged according to their postcode.

Amongst the many questions left in this week’s wake will be how on the earth the SQA did not see the explosive backlash coming. You don’t have to be a pupil or a parent to be angry, though their outrage and disgust is understandably the most palpable. The only people happy to be judged by their schools and neighbourhoods are generally those who can afford to determine what they are.

Almost immediately following the release of yesterday’s results, the SQA was warned it would face a deluge of appeals from aggrieved teenagers smart enough to recognise an injustice when it arrives through the letterbox. In anticipation of this, the SQA has waived its favourite means of price-gouging, a fee of £39.95 (as of last year) per result for fast-track appeals – a sign of weakness that should prompt us to ask why an official body is permitted to profiteer off young people with impunity under regular circumstances.

Personally, I can only hope the appeals process has changed for the better since the last time I made use of it in the early 2000s, when it was pointedly made clear to those challenging their grades that the relevant authorities considered this option an indulgence, a favour they were doing for those who should have worked harder, rather than a right of every pupil to course-correct the outcome of a deeply flawed system. Judging by indications so far, the passage of time has instead only rendered this system more insidious.

Speaking ahead of results day, an SQA spokesperson warned that there are three possible outcomes to an appeal: “A higher grade can be awarded, there could be no change to the grade, or a lower grade can be awarded.” Protection racketeers ply their trade with more subtlety. Lodge an appeal, and maybe end up worse than where you started, runs the implication. Or you can stop questioning our process and leave it alone.

In response to the outcry, the Scottish Government has hunkered down. Speaking yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued that “this system of moderation that has been required this year is not what is causing the attainment gap.” This is a cheap dodge – the attainment gap cannot be fixed without addressing the socio-economic inequality it reflects, which Sturgeon’s government has so far failed to do. But while the SQA may not have caused the attainment gap, their approach this year has reflected it and reinforced it. In doing so, according to John Swinney, they have “upheld standards.” They must be very proud.

“This moderation is necessary,” Sturgeon continued, “to ensure that we have a credible system of results.” Credible to whom? Not, it would seem, to young people, to whom the first minister offered a variant on ‘worse things happen at sea’ and little else. Credible to teachers? Those empowered to protect children’s rights in Scotland? Not so much – there may be #nowrongpath, but in the view of the SQA, there are plenty of wrong teachers.

Given the choice between being ‘credible’ and being fair, a choice was made that strengthened inequality and erected roadblocks to social mobility for the poorest and most disadvantaged. In a just world, it would be the SQA and the Scottish Government that bore the consequences of that decision. In this one, that price will be paid by the nation’s youth, who are generally not consulted about education policy. While the campaign group ‘SQA Where’s Our Say?’ has quite rightly called upon the exams authority to engage with those young people affected by the new grading process, they shouldn’t hold their breath. The SQA hands down judgement on others, and bristles at the idea of the tables being turned.

Having faced attacks from the disingenuous and moronic throughout the pandemic for the crime of trying to prevent children dying, the SQA’s policy serves as one more darkly ironic insult to the teaching profession. After being harangued by the more frothing elements of the media and political establishment to ‘get back to work’ throughout the Covid lockdown, their work has now been largely ignored. After all, what do teachers know about their pupils? The SQA clearly knows better.

If anything positive has emerged from this scandal, it is proof of just how unsuccessful certain quarters have been in portraying Scotland’s teachers as a shiftless pack of union thugs and scam artists, dedicated to their own self-aggrandisement at the expense of those in their care. Some have tried to revive this slander – notably former Labour MP Tom Harris, who enjoys a Daily Telegraph column as a kind of consolation prize for his political ‘career’ – but even he recognises that his position is in the minority, grumbling that “the teaching profession is only slightly less regarded that NHS workers in public esteem”. That being the case, you could be forgiven for wondering why they have been treated so shabbily.

It has long been believed by many within Scotland’s opposition parties that the SNP’s record on education will be what eventually damns them in the eyes of the public, and they may yet be proven right. However, the controversy now surrounding the SQA presents problems for more than the exams body and the Scottish Government. It should be remembered that ruthlessly judging schools by past performance is exactly the outcome sought by those who endlessly agitate for league tables, dreaming of the day when such metrics can be used to facilitate the middle-class flight of those who can afford to give their children a leg up at the expense of the less fortunate.

This has always been the natural constituency of the Scottish Tories; that party and its sympathisers are not, to put it mildly, heavily invested in helping more people go to college or university, creating a more egalitarian form of Scottish education, or doing anything about standardised testing beyond complaining there isn’t enough of it. Such views, and the prominence afforded them, have added to the general philosophy which allowed this scandal to transpire.

Despite the fact that they have clearly underestimated the public anger inspired by this week’s results and the methodology behind them, it is possible the entire stramash could solve a long-standing problem for the Scottish Government, or at least for John Swinney. Forced by Covid into a situation where even our standardised testing cultist of an education secretary had to acknowledge that exams were going to be cancelled, the SQA have made such an offensive joke out of the alternative that many will likely be happy to get back to the old regime of endless high-stakes testing, if ever we return to some version of normality.  

However, this would be a major error. Young people got screwed by the SQA this year; the culture of exams they oversee screws them over every other year. Both should face a reckoning.

For an idea with such little purchase in our national discourse, the arguments favouring the abolition of standardised testing are plentiful and long-standing. Figuring out how to pass exams is not the same as an education, and never was; testing is a miserable means of assessing learning, and the fact that our educational apparatus relies on exams so heavily should shame what was once the home of the ‘democratic intellect’. Education reformers – chiefly, for whatever reason, in countries other than the UK – have been pointing this out for some years, and I was convinced long ago.

Granted, I am no expert in education policy, but I do have the benefit of an education that did not appear on any curriculum. I have seen the human cost of exams. You’ve probably seen the same.

I remember friends and peers – people far smarter than I – brought low by exams. I remember people who couldn’t eat or sleep; who spent weeks punctuating their studious revision with bouts of weeping at the possibility of disappointing their families and themselves; who, when the day came, could not physically bring themselves to walk into the exam hall, because their right to even have hopes and dreams for the future hung in the balance.

This situation did not emerge organically – it was the natural, even rational response to a society and educational culture endlessly reaffirming one simple message: ‘Don’t fuck up.’

Some took years to put their lives back together. In my day, this was euphemistically described as ‘exam anxiety’. I call it unconscionable. We do this to children, and we do so for entirely selfish reasons.

We are told exams and other forms of standardised testing help teachers (never mind that teachers themselves are less than united in this view); that they are a crucial tool for universities in judging admissions (because heaven forbid we treat university – for many, the first place they have ever been where education does not necessarily mean teaching to the test – as a right for all, rather than a privilege to be won); that it informs government policy and guides the decisions of employers (unless you believe the stranglehold of Oxbridge upon the corridors of UK power happens by accident).  

The one thing it doesn’t do is help those pupils forced into the threshing machine of an exam culture we are too lazy, too unimaginative and too scared to challenge.

Even amongst those who style themselves as radical in Scotland, there is little discussion of fundamentally reforming Scottish education beyond its most offensive aspects – I might yet live to see the end of private schooling in Scotland, but a broader philosophical reconsideration of what education should be is about as likely as an independent Scotland modelling itself on Plato’s Republic.

Yet this is not a thought experiment; there are places in this world that have moved away from standardised testing, or at least lessened its centrality to the education process. That we are not one of them, along with everything else highlighted by this week’s controversy, should encourage us to examine those vested interests who prefer to keep Scottish education on its current track, and ask what we can do about them.

Since this year’s results were released, the SQA has predictably faced calls to release its methodology, but such a belated spasm of transparency – explaining precisely how they screwed over untold numbers of Scottish young people after the fact – would be too little, too late. Moreover, the SQA’s resistance to making their methodology public before now, along with their decision to publish impact assessments on equalities and children’s rights only on results day itself, does not suggest an organisation confident in its actions, but rather a toxic mixture of arrogance and cowardice. Even if the SQA should engage in a staggering about-face in the weeks to come, its conduct demands more than superficial solutions.

When I was actually in high school, I regarded the SQA as a problem best solved with pitchforks and flaming torches. My opinion has softened a little with age – also, I don’t have a pitchfork. But there is no answer to what has led us to this sorry situation that does not involve root-and-branch reform of the exams authority – the kind of reform that would either be impossible or pointless unless complimented by a fundamental reframing of how we approach education in this country.

The SQA may feel it has been treated unfairly – that its critics have failed to take account of the extraordinary pressures and circumstances with which it was forced to contend, that its future should not be affected by its performance, and that it deserves another chance. Some – particularly those young people contemplating their results yesterday – might find this poetic.

Changing Scottish education will be the work of generations. For now, we must confront the reality at hand: the SQA has failed. No appeals.

A petition calling on the SQA to reverse its 2020 results policy can be found here:

Picture courtesy of Xavi