'Daddy, what did you do in the
Great War?' asked First World War propaganda posters enticing men to join up rather than embarrass their children by their apathy. Fast forward over 100-years and we are back in world crisis – a global pandemic. In that crisis, education and examinations across the world were disrupted.
In Scotland, the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) came under scrutiny for their response, or lack of, to what was obviously a challenging situation which had the potential to affect the life chances of many students. The SQA's 2018/2019 Annual Report
noted significant risks including: 'major incident disrupts operations'. The risk rating was deemed 'minimal', with mitigations including 'a range of contingency plans in place, Audit of Disaster Recovery-identified improved actions; and investment in network resilience'.
I have already written about complacent attitudes toward risk assessments and the need to link government risk-planning to national organisations, regional and local risk-planning. Despite 'mitigations', 2020 and 2021 examinations didn't go ahead for Scottish school children. The furore continues with the new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills deciding that the SQA is to be replaced. Interestingly, it took external OECD reporting to progress this.
Pressure on the SQA came via researchers like Barry Black sharing concerns at the SQA's proposed algorithms; academics like Professor Paterson, James McEnaney, Dr Robert White and I reflecting on injustices; and pupils protesting in George Square in Glasgow. Amidst it all, what did those allegedly leading education in localities across the country do about the ongoing crisis? What did they do as issues emerged? Media and political pressure resulted in government and SQA u-turns to mitigate against children being disadvantaged by the pandemic-produced examination cancellation? Did council 'leaders' engage other senior leaders to ensure social justice, to avert crises or propose solutions?
To find out, I submitted Freedom of Information requests to all of Scotland's local authorities, asking if the 'director of education and/or chief legal officer or any other centrally deployed education officer raised concerns with SQA about the 2020 or 2021 exam diet'. Responses are revealing and add further evidence to ongoing reviews of education governance. What those senior officers did/did not do, gives significant insights to Scottish educational 'leadership'.
On first draft of this, 41 days after my FOI request, seven local authorities were still to reply (FOIs have 20 days to respond). With responses still to come, one wondered if they were any less lackadaisical in raising concerns for children with the SQA, the organisation responsible for providing accreditation and qualifications. At the time of finalising this article, I have all responses in except East Ayrshire, Orkney and West Lothian.
Of those who did respond, some noted they explicitly did not raise any concerns about 2020 or 2021 SQA examinations: Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Borders, Clackmannanshire, Dumfries and Galloway; East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, Perth and Kinross, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling and Western Isles. Less than a third of Scotland's 32 Scottish local authorities noted that they did
write to raise concerns. Those who sounded the alarm bell for young people were also positive in their FOI responses which were transparent and full in sharing communications regarding the SQA.
The reason why I asked about chief legal officers in the FOI was that funds will have been transferred between local authorities ('customers') and the SQA – to provide a service. Whether that service was met or not and whether contracts were disputed or re-negotiated in light of circumstances seems not to have happened. I received only one piece of correspondence of this nature and none from chief legal officers. That single request to renegotiate fees with the SQA in light of aspects of service not being provided was buffered by the SQA and it seems there was no follow up from the authority in question. It seems a 'cosy consensus', which has been criticised in Scottish education before, continued. Most stayed silent on this matter.
Some local authority FOI responses noted discussions between council officers and SQA liaison officers or via forums like the education directors' group ADES. None of those authorities noted any formal concerns raised directly between council officers and the SQA. One local authority, rather than answering the question of my FOI response, requested a follow-up discussion on the issue. This is not the FOI process at all. One wonders if the conversation would result in any different outcomes compared with conversations held with the SQA and via director's collectives? Did this high-level collective of directors manage to ensure equity and excellence for Scottish school children through their conversations?
Of those councils who raised concerns, Highland Council were not only the quickest to respond to the FOI but also fullest in sharing of documentation showing the sharing of concerns for students via formalised processes. Fife also noted that 'yes', they did raise concerns, and noted not only discussions with the SQA but also drop-in sessions (albeit not minuted) for school SQA coordinators and a formal meeting between authority officers and SQA representatives with further follow-up correspondence. Children seem to have been championed by leaders in these areas proactively noting issues, seeking answers and keen for improvements. In other areas, the silence is deafening.
Three authorities took a literal interpretation of the FOI question, responding to say that they had no concerns with the SQA as there was no examination because they were cancelled. Whether this was interpretive or an attempt to avoid directly answering is unclear. More light could be shed on this soon, with a follow-up FOI asking about any concerns raised about a) the move to Alternative Certification Model (ACM) or b) ACM itself. Local elected members, parliamentary committee and/or tax-paying public may wish to pursue this.
East Lothian's executive director for education raised issues in releasing staff to support appeals in 2020. Her 2021 concern is all the more worrying in that she flagged to the SQA 'anecdotal' information of young people in an independent school being assessed using a paper, that paper being marked before the students saw the feedback, and the same paper being issued for students to complete again. The SQA follow-up to this and investigation is unclear. However, if true, this seriously calls into question the validity of some grades in 2021, alongside the major issue of papers being shared on TikTok.
South Ayrshire noted that they did not raise concerns in 2020. However, in 2021, they raised general concerns and some subject specific concerns which includes 'equity issues around the PE assessment'; National Progression Awards unable to finish the course and no adjustments made; and contradictions around maths assessment advice. In the latter, it notes 'guidance creates a situation where it is a one-off high stakes exam, albeit in reality it's probably a series of short exams done within class time'.
South Ayrshire's quality improvement manager is clearly gathering views and issues, relaying them to the SQA clearly. and seeking clarity to support staff and achieve the best outcomes for young people. South Ayrshire's director also wrote to a customer@sqa email address regarding 2021 exams. He was the second director to use this email, raising the issue of why local liaison officers were not engaged with, or indeed senior SQA officers, via their direct email addresses. One area noted was 'disappointment at the decision to withdraw exceptional circumstances' for students bereaved, with health issues or with other exceptional circumstances.
On 23 August 2020, the director raised concerns about the lack of serious engagement from the SQA. Timeframes, consultation and engagement, and timeframes for proper analysis of responses are all noted as areas of concern. It was noted that: 'headteachers want to have confidence in the Scottish exam system and the 2021 awards. However, at this point, they cannot be confident because they are not engaged or involved effectively... The exam system does need to be trusted, at this point that trust is in very short supply and I urge you to engage more effectively with the system'. The email goes on to say: 'It has become clear to me throughout this pandemic that we are strongest as a system when we work together'.
Aberdeen City Council was one of the five local authorities noting they did raise concerns. Aberdeen City officer(s) took an interesting and commendable position in raising concerns about the National 4 deadlines, often a forgotten group in the clamour for Highers. National 4 deadlines, it seems, were set earlier than National5/Higher/Advanced Higher students. Aberdeen's officers asked the SQA; 'Is it fair?'
We might ask if the whole system has been fair these last two years? Also, whether it is fair that local authority senior officials did not communicate concerns with the national body on their behalf. Many authorities were quick enough to deploy officers to attempt to purge teacher grades which broke historic trends, thus we saw the 2020 algorithm by the back door but with variable application. There could not be a bigger omnishambles if you tried.
One wonders who was championing our children? The inconsistency across Scotland identified in this article replicates OECD's concern about the variability of local authorities. The 2015 OECD report noted local authorities had varied capacity ('not all local-level bodies are equally as strong and indeed a common problem is their widely varying capacity') and expertise, and that this needed to be addressed through processes of professional accountability (this will become important in another article critiquing education governance at present).
OECD, in their 2021 report, also noted issues in variance in responsibilities between local authorities and regional improvement collaboratives. However, OECD were very clear as is, they note, legislation, that the majority of legal responsibility for education sits with local authorities. Maybe we need to ask local authority leaders: 'what did you
do in the pandemic?' After all, who is watching them? And who is watching out for Scotland's children?
It seems we have structural and competence issues in standing up for Scotland's children, ironic given what is spouted by national and local authority leaders on children's rights and entitlements. None of this is new though. Professor Walter Humes hit the nail on the head in 1986 when his Leadership Class in Scottish Education
noted 'a willingness to supress legitimate debate on important matters of public policy in the interests of administrative convenience', that 'the political sub-subsystem' of education… demonstrates the extent to which the maintenance and, where possible, extension of power, rather than the provision of improved services, is a prime motivator. Private goals displace publicly-stated objectives'. Thirty five years on, one might question if these sentiments still apply.
Public records must note that in 2020 and 2021, when an unfair system was about to be imposed on Scotland's children, less than a third of Scotland's 32 local authorities spoke up formally and directly. 'Bravo' to them. 'Must try harder' to those who sat quietly. Silence is golden in some circles – but not when children are not protected and their chances jeopardised unfairly.
Neil McLennan is an education leader, former Young Programme delegate and previous Institute of Contemporary Scotland Young Scot of the Year