LECTURER and author of Class Rules: The Truth About Scottish Schools, James McEnaney writes on the latest scandal to envelope the soon-to-be-scrapped SQA.

LAST year, massive disruption to learning between August and December saw the exams planned for the following May cancelled. This was the right move (they really should have been cancelled sooner) because, quite simply, there was no way to make a national exam diet fair in the face of the chaos brought on by Covid.

This year, students and teachers faced much the same situation. Between August and December we witnessed enormous disruption in schools, with astronomical absence rates amongst both pupils and teachers. But this year, the SQA and Government were absolutely determined to shove kids back into exam halls as part of their race back towards the comfortable (and failed) status quo.

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So if the situation wasn’t going to be made fair by cancelling exams, what would be done?

That’s where the SQA “exam support material” would come in. These resources – a mixture of early notice about exam topics, so-called study guides, and notes that some students would be able to take in with them – were billed as the intervention that was going to keep the show on the road.

Last year we ensured fairness by cancelling exams; this year, under the same circumstances, exams would go ahead and fairness would be achieved using the support materials. They are that important.

Which makes the SQA’s latest failure about as serious as it gets.

The National: Exams

The material that Scotland’s only exam body has produced is, for the vast majority of subjects, worthless at best and extraordinarily insulting at worst.

Study guides include such vital contributions as “use a ruler when you draw graphs”, “you should read the question” and “it’s always a good idea to spell words correctly”.

It says a lot about the SQA that they seem to believe this will be new information for students when it is actually the sort of thing any half-competent teacher has already covered dozens of times.

With a few very specific exceptions, any actual information being provided is either meaningless or is creating new problems.

It is a shambles and confirms that the 2022 exam diet will be fundamentally (even deliberately) unfair to young people – and that’s before we even factor in the way the SQA is rigging the appeals system against students.

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Now don’t get me wrong: nobody really thought the SQA was up to this job. It is an utterly incompetent organisation and there’s a strong argument to be made that it has never, at any point, been fit for purpose.

This is an arrogant and dysfunctional organisation that treats young people with disdain and teachers with contempt. One that prioritises, above all else, the protection of a system that we can all see is broken.

Indeed, when they were challenged on the latest controversy, the SQA response was to demand that we all stop being critical in case it undermines young people’s confidence in the system. Don’t blame us for our own incompetence, they insist, because if you do it makes you the problem.

It took me back to 2020, when I broke the story of the results scandal a few days before the grades were officially released, and an SQA spokesperson phoned me up to complain that telling people the truth about what I knew would be causing anxiety amongst students.

And to make matters worse, the SNP education secretary came out in support of the SQA, dismissing the concerns of teaching professionals and the young people being let down.

So where are we now? That’s easy, actually: the same place we were the last two years. We’re putting “credibility” ahead of the needs of pupils, because those in charge are more interested in protecting the system than protecting students during a pandemic.

I’d love to say that it is shocking. Or unbelievable. Or incredible.

But the truth is that, at this stage, and with these people in charge, it isn’t any of those things.

This catastrophic failure is simply par for the course.