Delivering the Alternative Certification Model

Since their return to school in August last year, a number of young people have experienced periods of self-isolation in order to support public health efforts to suppress the virus and keep everyone safe.

These were difficult and challenging times, and many questions were raised about how qualifications could be awarded under these circumstances. However, as Tony McDaid, Executive Director at South Lanarkshire Council writes, the resilience shown by learners, teachers, lecturers, and the wider education community gives him hope for the coming months.

The National Qualifications examination diet was cancelled because of the disruption caused by the pandemic. The Deputy First Minister said in October that exams for National 5 courses could not go ahead, and then in December, he confirmed that exams for Higher, and Advanced Higher courses would also be dropped.

Removing the common exam hurdle that many thousands of learners must cross every summer term in Scotland for the second year in a row was of course unsettling.

However, the education system in Scotland agreed that learners needed to be confident that awards gained this year were of the same value as previous years and assessed in a way that was fair and equitable.

I am a member of the National Qualifications 2021 Group. The group was set up and tasked with developing an Alternative Certification Model through which National 5, Higher, and Advanced Higher courses can be awarded fairly and equitably.

Unlike 2020 where grading decisions were based on inferred attainment – what teachers and lecturers thought learners would have achieved based on the skills and knowledge they had showed up to that point – the National Qualifications 2021 Group agreed that grades awarded in 2021 would be based on demonstrated attainment. National 5, Higher, and Advanced Higher results would be based only on the assessment evidence gathered by schools and colleges.

Subjects are different in nature and this is reflected in the range of approaches to learning, teaching and assessment. This means it is important that assessments are tailored to the subject. For example in some subject areas, assessments take place under controlled conditions, while other assessments may be ongoing and more practical in nature. It is the quality of assessment evidence based on the learning and teaching that has taken place which is critical, rather than quantity, and there is flexibility for schools and colleges to decide how and when this can be carried out.

So, what steps have we taken to get to this point? Following consultation in August 2020, SQA reviewed the criteria for each of its qualifications and reduced the assessment threshold for its courses as much as possible, while keeping the integrity of the overall award.

In the new year, while almost all learners were working from home during the second lockdown, SQA published guidance documents for each subject at each level. These documents gave schools and colleges the information to develop their assessment approaches for each subject. SQA also made optional assessment support materials available – question papers and other resources were given to schools and colleges to help them develop assessments tailored for their learners. In addition, SQA shared its Understanding Standards resources, to help teachers and lecturers familiarise themselves with the national standard of achievement.

In line with the first stage of the Alternative Certification Model the focus of the first three months of this year were on continuing learning and teaching. March and April saw learners return to the classroom in a phased approach, where teachers could consolidate learning and prepare learners for assessments.

We are now in the second stage of the Alternative Certification Model, where schools and colleges have started to assess learners, and generate evidence of their knowledge and understanding. Schools and colleges will also start to carry out their own quality assurance procedures, supported by their local authority’s checks and processes.

In my own local authority, our approach sees staff in faculties and departments working together to ensure assessment tools and evidence has been generated fairly and consistently, in line with our schools’ and authority policies. There are also meetings for teachers across the local authority, and partnership working with neighbouring authorities to ensure our learners achieve the grades they deserve. It is important to have these internal quality assurance steps in place to ensure there is a commonly understood standard. In addition to these measures, SQA will also sample pupil assessment tools and evidence generated as part of the quality assurance process that will take place in May.

Looking ahead, there will be further challenges for learners, teachers and lecturers to overcome, but I am confident that resources and supports are in place to ensure young people are fairly recognised for their achievements.

At the outset, I said this past year has been a hugely challenging time for learners, as well as their teachers and lecturers, at schools and colleges across the country.

However, the level of resilience I have seen not only from learners but also their teachers, lecturers, and other members of our school and college communities gives me hope that we will overcome these challenges.

*The National Qualifications 2021 Group includes the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), Colleges Scotland, Education Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), School Leaders Scotland (SLS), the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the Scottish Government, National Parent Forum of Scotland, and the Scottish Youth Parliament.