School assessments: Education secretary makes 'cast-iron' guarantee

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Shirley-Anne Somerville: "If your teacher thinks you deserve an A you will get an A from this."

Scotland's new education secretary has made a "cast-iron guarantee" that no young person will be further disadvantaged by this year's assessments.

Shirley-Anne Somerville promised pupils "If your teacher thinks you deserve an A, you will get an A".

She said she still had full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

But she said lessons had to be learned from the Covid experience.

Asked by the BBC if she could give a cast-iron guarantee that the situation pupils faced last year - when grades were subject to an algorithm and were weighted by a school's past performance or postcode - would not happen again, she said: "Absolutely".

She said: "This year a teacher's judgement is based on an individual's demonstrated attainment. So if your teacher thinks you deserve an A, you will get an A.

"The assessment process is judged by your teacher and they will submit the grade. No-one is coming in to overrule that or second guess it. Your teacher will decide your grade, if you don't agree you have direct right of free appeal. No-one is coming in to second guess them or their teacher."

Two weeks from the end of a second turbulent school year, teachers, pupils and parents remain wary of qualification arrangements.

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No formal exams have taken place since 2019 and after a disastrous 2020 results day, all eyes are on the 2021 solution.

Last week, Ms Somerville announced a reform of the SQA and Education Scotland, just hours after Nicola Sturgeon gave the SQA her full confidence.

"We do have full confidence in the SQA," she said. "But we also know that we need to learn lessons from the experience of Covid and also with the report coming up from the OECD, we, as a government, need to be open to reform, open to challenge and to suggestions of how we should change.

"The qualifications the SQA are delivering this year for young people are sound and they are credible, but that doesn't mean we should stop and we can't and shouldn't look at change and that's what we are determined to deliver."

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Shirley-Anne Somerville announced reform of the SQA and Education Scotland in parliament last week

Just one month into her new post, the new cabinet secretary said she had seen the anticipated international OECD report into the entire Scottish education system.

Ahead of its publication this month, she said the Scottish government was "open to reform".

Open to change

"It is very important that we demonstrate a direction of travel for the government and demonstrate an openness for change," she said.

"We know this big report is coming, we know the OECD has looked at education in the round and if the OECD is recommending change to us I think its quite right that early on in my time as education secretary say I am open to that change, I am open to that challenge, so is the whole of the Scottish government.

"That gives people at least a little time before that OECD report is published to take part in that conversation, have a think about what they want - because I hear a lot of people saying we should scrap the SQA or make dramatic changes but what I don't often hear is a solution to what can be replacements or what people want to change."

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Looking ahead to the new school year in August, the education secretary said she would like to see schools return to normal, but that contingency arrangements were in place if schools needed to move to a different way of working.

She gave parents and pupils reassurance that plans had been made.

However, she said decisions had not yet been taken over next year's exams.

It's certainly planting her flag firmly in the ground.

Given the outcry that there was last year and the criticism about how things have been working this year, Shirley-Anne Somerville obviously doesn't expect to be in the same position her predecessor John Swinney was in last year when he had to make that U-turn on results.

She mentioned the OECD report a few times, particularly when talking about her decision to reform the SQA and Education Scotland, so that potentially hints that the report might include something about that.

Coming into the new role, Ms Somerville said she believed the government had a very good record on education and that she was seeing progress in closing the attainment gap, and that empowerment in schools was making a difference. But she admitted there was more to do.

She said: "When you look at context of Covid and reports coming out, the OECD, we know we can do more.

"We know we still have work to do, and Covid accentuated the need even more."

In response, Oliver Mundell, the Scottish Conservatives education spokesman, said he wanted to see the government to go further than reform.

"Rather than reforming the SQA I think they should be talking about axing it, scrapping it and starting from the beginning again, asking what kind of qualifications body do we want in Scotland, not shifting existing people around, and tinkering around the edges. The SQA has let young people down," he said.