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Education, Children and Young People Committee

SQA submission on Alternative Certification Model

Submission from SQA ahead of evidence session on 27 September 2021


The Education, Children and Young People Committee has asked the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to discuss the 2020-21 Alternative Certification Model put in place to ensure an appropriate balance between learning, teaching, and assessment, given the challenging circumstances caused by the pandemic. This paper provides some summary information in advance of the evidence session with SQA, to be held on 29 September 2021.

2. Assessing National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher in 2021

In August 2020, SQA undertook a national consultation to reduce the assessment requirements of courses. This was undertaken in recognition of the disruption to learning in 2020 and anticipated disruption in 2021. The purpose of modifications was to free up teaching and learning time, whilst maintaining the validity, credibility and standard of the qualifications. The consultation received over 23,000 responses from learners, parents, carers, teachers, lecturers, representative organisations and professional associations. Overall, feedback on the consultation supported the proposed modifications as they were seen as practical given the challenges, but changes were made in response to the feedback we received. Full details of the modifications are available here.

To support teachers and lecturers, we published a total of 148 course modifications across National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher on Wednesday 7 October. Following the cancellation of exams, we published 116 subject-specific guidance documents and 134 individual assessment resources for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses, from November to February.

Given the rapidly changing circumstances of the pandemic, we acted quickly to further adapt our assessment approach, in particular the delivery of practical and performance subjects, such as Music, Drama, Dance and PE, throughout the year and in consultation with subject specialists and colleagues in Education Scotland.

In response to the continued disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, the Deputy First Minister announced the cancellation of National 5 exams on Wednesday 7 October 2020 and the cancellation of Higher and Advanced Higher exams on Tuesday 8 December 2020.

The National Qualifications 2021 Group was formally established in October 2020 to provide advice on the development of the alternative certification model (ACM) for National Qualifications in 2021. Given the disruption caused by the pandemic, it was vital that the education system worked together to ensure an appropriate balance between learning, teaching, and assessment. A system-wide collaborative approach was also a recommendation of the Rapid Review of National Qualifications Experience 2020 by Professor Mark Priestley. Regular reports on progress were provided to Scottish Ministers and the Education Recovery Group, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

The National Qualifications 2021 Group, made up of representatives from 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, met weekly to consider alternative certification arrangements for National Qualifications in the 2020–21 session. It was supported by a National Qualifications 2021 Working Group, which also met weekly.

In addition to parents/carers and young people being represented on the National Qualifications 2021 Group, we established a Learner Panel last year to engage and consult with young people. We continued to engage and share messages with learner organisations and their members, such as Young Scot, the Scottish Youth Parliament, and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, and with organisations representing parents/carers, such as the National Parent Forum Scotland (NPFS), Connect and the Scottish Government’s parental engagement network.

Alternative Certification Model (ACM)

The ACM for National 5 was published on Tuesday 8 December 2020, and the same approach was adopted for Higher and Advanced Higher following their cancellation by the Deputy First Minister’s on that same date. Following discussion with the National Qualifications 2021 Group, revisions to the approach were published on Tuesday 16 February 2021, following the move to remote learning.

All partners involved in the National Qualifications 2021 Group agreed that at the heart of the ACM was certification of learners based on demonstrated attainment — evidence of skills, knowledge and understanding. Based on that evidence, teachers and lecturers exercised their professional judgement to determine provisional grades for learners. Having evidence of a learner’s skills and knowledge so that they can be awarded a qualification is important and is the cornerstone of our qualifications system. We know that colleges, universities and employers want to see that. It is also important for learners to have confidence in their qualifications, now and over time.

Teachers and lecturers know their learners and their individual circumstances best and so the ACM gave schools, colleges and training providers flexibility around the timing and nature of assessment to ensure that, as far as possible, there was maximum opportunity for learners to undertake the required learning and be given the best chance to succeed in any course assessments.

The ACM included support and flexibility to help address the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic:

• as highlighted above, the assessment requirements of courses were reduced in ways that teachers and lecturers thought were practical given the disruption to learning, while ensuring the qualifications remained valid and credible

• generic and specific course assessment guidance was provided — by Thursday 19 November for National 5 and throughout January 2021 for Higher and Advanced Higher. Assessment resources for every course, based on the unused 2020 exam papers, were also provided

• following the move to remote learning in January, the timeline for submission of provisional results was extended to Friday 25 June, providing as much time as possible for learning and teaching, enabling assessment to be delayed until learners were ready

• teacher and lecturer assessment judgements were supported with local and national quality assurance checks, to help ensure provisional results were based on national standards

• a contingency for later certification was introduced for those learners who had completed the learning for their course but, through no fault of their own, were unable to provide completed assessment evidence before Friday 25 June, as a result of experiencing particularly significant disruption

Further information on the approach is available in the National Qualifications 2021 Alternative Certification Model (ACM) Methodology Report.

Teachers and lecturers, with the support of the system and SQA, worked hard to deliver the right results to learners, first time. However, a direct right of appeal was available, and the appeals service was the final essential part of the model.This year, for the first time, learners could appeal directly to SQA for free and were able to register that they wanted to appeal from Friday 25 June. Appeals were processed with the support of schools, colleges and training providers after learners received their certificates on Tuesday 10 August.

Quality assurance

Quality assurance comprised a number of elements:

• SQA provided teachers and lecturers with a significant programme of ‘Understanding Standards’ materials and events across all subjects. These included guidance on making grading decisions, a SQA Academy online course, subject webinars, audio presentations, exemplification of learner performances at different grades, and supported teachers and lecturers in making their assessment judgements.

• Schools, colleges and training providers conducted their own internal quality assurance in line with the ACM’s defined roles and responsibilities as well as their own procedures and those of their local authority or subject networks.

• SQA also undertook a national quality assurance exercise, to look at how schools, colleges and training providers were applying the national standards. This was designed to be supportive and provided schools, colleges and training providers with feedback and advice. It did not involve the grading or moderation of individual learner assessments by SQA. Teacher judgement, based on learners’ demonstrated attainment, was the final arbiter of grades awarded.

Every school, college and training provider in Scotland delivering National Qualifications was subject to national quality assurance. They were selected for one or more subjects, at one level only, depending on the number of courses they delivered.

Provisional results

Provisional results for 519,429 National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses were submitted to SQA by Friday 25 June. This was the highest number of entries in the past seven years. The provisional grades were not altered by SQA unless, in a very small number of cases, an administrative error was identified, in collaboration with the school, college or training provider.

Learners were informed of their grades by centres before submission to SQA for resulting.

The overall entries for all National Qualifications (National 2 to Advanced Higher, including Skills for Work) in 2021 were 660,661. This was an increase of 8,201 on 2020 and was the highest number of entries in the past five years.

Entries at National 5 decreased by 2,666 to 297,973. Entries at Higher increased by 8,447 to 194,661 and Advanced Higher increased by 3,225 to 26,795.


The distribution of 2021 August attainment is available on SQA’s statistics page.

A to C attainment in 2021 at National 5 was 255,517 or 85.8% (267,558 or 89.0% in 2020). At Higher it was 169,989 or 87.3% (166,208 or 89.3% in 2020). At Advanced Higher it was 24,162 or 90.2% (21,935 or 93.1% in 2020).

The biggest change was at A grade. Attainment at A grade in 2021 at National 5 was 46.7% (42.3% in 2020), at Higher 47.6% (40.0% in 2020) and 51.0% at Advanced Higher (46.3% in 2020).

Some variation in attainment and the composition of attainment is to be expected between courses and over time. This year, we saw more movements in attainment than we would see in a normal year when exams are held. Learners across Scotland experienced disruption to learning and teaching and periods of remote learning. Modifications to assessment, the absence of external assessment and the flexibility in how and when courses were assessed by teachers and lecturers, which was required due to the levels of disruption, may also have impacted on attainment.

Given the exceptional circumstances in which National Courses were awarded in both 2020 and 2021, it is not possible to draw definitive conclusions on any changes in education performance across these two years, or in comparison to 2019.


Throughout the development of the model, we had equalities at the heart of our thinking and developed and published equality impact assessments and child rights and wellbeing impact assessments to inform our approaches and decisions, as well as to demonstrate our compliance with our statutory obligations.

In developing the ACM, we had due regard to the potential equalities impacts of our decisions and processes and sought to ensure that our guidance to centres on equalities in the provisional results process assisted them in fulfilling their equalities responsibilities. We also ensured that the arrangements for appeals were designed to address any cases of discrimination by centres.

Statistical analysis for 2021 shows that, relative to each year in the period 2017 to 2019, the A and A–C attainment rates are up for all groups at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher.

Relative to 2020, attainment at grade A is up for all characteristics: Sex, Disability, SIMD, Additional Support Needs and Ethnic group at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher.

When focusing on the most deprived and least deprived groups in 2021, the attainment gap is smaller than in 2019 and previous years, but slightly wider than in 2020. Given the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, the disruption to learning and teaching, and the very different approaches to assessment and grading over the past two academic years, and, importantly, a very different grade distribution, comparisons need to be treated with caution and it is not possible to draw definitive conclusions on any changes in education performance across these two years or in comparison to pre-pandemic years.

Full tables and analysis are available in the 2021 Alternative Certification Model: Equalities Monitoring Report.

Higher National and Vocational Qualifications
Beyond National Qualifications, SQA also worked collaboratively with the Higher National and Vocational Qualifications 2021 Group that had representation from all parts of further education and vocational training. The group developed general and subject-specific advice and guidance to support assessment for vocational qualifications. Colleges and training providers welcomed the flexibility of the advice and guidance to facilitate their assessment approaches. SQA also worked with regulatory bodies to confirm the assessment arrangements required for regulated qualifications, including Scottish Vocational Qualifications and Licence to Practice qualifications.

With Skills Development Scotland, SQA ensured the continued delivery of Scotland’s apprenticeships.

3. Assessing National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher in 2022

Following the decision by Ministers that exams should go ahead in 2022 if it is safe to do so, SQA continues to take advice from a National Qualifications 2022 Group and monitor public health advice to prepare for a range of scenarios.

These scenarios and the associated contingencies, agreed by partners, acknowledge the possibility of further disruption in the months ahead and will help to ensure the safe delivery of National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses. The arrangements take into account some early evaluation of the 2021 ACM as well as greater experience of how the pandemic might behave.

In keeping with previous years, SQA will continue to provide an Understanding Standards programme of events and materials that support teachers and lecturers with assessment decisions, building on their experience of determining provisional results in 2020-21. SQA will also continue to work with schools, colleges and training providers in checking the internally assessed elements of National Qualifications to ensure they meet national standards.

We have set out more detailed information on the current position with each scenario. Communications materials and activities have been developed in collaboration with partners from across the education sector. We will continue to provide all schools, colleges and training providers, as well as learners, parents and carers, with information regarding National Qualifications in 2021-22 – at

4. Conclusion

The Scottish Government announced in June that SQA is to be replaced by a new curriculum and assessment agency and has commissioned an independent review to advise on next steps, which is expected to report early next year. Until a replacement organisation is established, SQA will continue to fulfil its statutory functions and deliver for Scotland’s learners. This includes delivery of exams and other assessments to schools, colleges and training providers in 2022, which learners can have pride in, and which universities, colleges and employers can have confidence in.

SQA is committed to making a positive contribution to Professor Ken Muir’s review of Scotland’s education bodies and the next steps that flow from his work. This will help secure a smooth transition which will support and safeguard the interests of learners and provide continuity of service to schools, colleges and training providers.

Scottish Qualifications Authority
September 2021