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SQA and the art of knitting jumpers

March 10, 2013

While the rest of the UK relies on private organisations (Cambridge ESOL, Trinity, City and Guilds etc.) to offer qualifications in ESOL and other areas of lifelong learning, Scotland has its own national qualifications awarding body, the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority). It is still possible for learners to get qualifications like the Cambridge main suite and Trinity GESE in Scotland of course, but most Scottish stakeholders (colleges, universities, employers) prefer SQA ESOL qualifications because they are directly linked to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) and therefore can be equated to qualifications in other subjects. This means that the SQA plays a very important role in the delivery of ESOL in Scotland.

Teachers involved in ELT outside of Scotland may be surprised at how SQA operates, as was I when I returned from overseas and first found myself delivering their qualifications. For global providers like Cambridge ESOL, IELTS and the like, ESOL exams are a huge business and a lot of money goes into research and piloting, quality control and review/revision. Hundreds of hours are spent before an assessment is produced that can deemed useable. With regard to conditions of assessment, examiners undergo training and standardisation, and there are rigorous procedures in place to ensure standards are maintained. As a result, examining bodies like this can be pretty confident that their assessments give a decent indication of linguistic competence.

SQA has a rather different approach. For a start, it relies heavily on government funding so, in the current climate, it is under pressure to do everything as cost-effectively as possible. It doesn’t really employ subject specialists at all; it engages them on short-term contracts or secondments as required. This means that any subject specialists working at SQA are doing so on a temporary basis, often on top of their existing jobs.

For National Qualifications (NQs), the assessments themselves are usually written by ESOL practitioners who are drafted in specifically for this purpose. They know the subject, but they don’t necessarily know that much about assessment. This means that the assessments produced by SQA are not always the most valid, and the content is sometimes not generic enough to make the assessment truly reliable for all learners.

The other big difference between SQA ESOL qualifications and the big international exams is that SQA assessments are delivered internally, normally with teachers playing the role of assessor. The standardisation process involves assessments being internally verified by another member of staff in the same centre, and occasionally an external verifier will also visit. It is good that verification procedures are in place, but they are far less robust than an externally administered and assessed exam would be.

Assessments produced by SQA become part of the National Assessment Bank (NAB) and are used by all ESOL providers across Scotland, but the shortcomings of the assessments mean that providers are often unhappy about using them.

When I first started delivering SAQ assessments, used as I was to the likes of IELTS or Cambridge ESOL, I had rather a dim view of the whole thing, and was particularly irked by the quality of some of the assessments (or NABs). The response I got from SQA was that I could design my own NABs if I preferred, and then send them to SQA to be approved. I was incensed by this at the time, because it just seemed like SQA was unashamedly getting me to do their job for them. While ranting about this with my colleagues we came up with the “knitting jumpers” analogy. SQA’s response to my complaint was akin to me taking a jumper with a hole in it back to Marks and Spencer, and the manager saying “OK, well why don’t you knit your own jumper instead and I will give you a Marks and Spencer label which you can sew into it.”

I’ve been delivering SQA ESOL qualifications for a few years now, and I’ve come to accept that the whole assessment format is different from the types of English language qualifications that most teachers around the world are familiar with. SQA is an awarding body and a provider of qualifications, but a certain degree of autonomy is allowed in terms of the assessments themselves and the way they are delivered. This autonomy is likely to increase with the Curriculum for Excellence, which encourages assessment to be more “naturally occurring”; individual centres will be expected to take more responsibility with regard to creation/selection and design of assessment instruments. In short, we’ll all have to knit our own jumpers.

I suppose you can argue that knitting your own jumper means you end up with a jumper that really suits you. We can make sure that the assessments reflect the language and skills that have actually been taught, rather than teaching specific language and skills in order to get the students through the assessments.

So, if we’re knitting our own jumpers, what are SQA doing? I suppose that by providing the specifications of each qualification they are giving us a pattern to follow, and then of course they give us the label to sew in once the knitting is complete, which validates the qualification in the same way that a designer label adds value to a real jumper.

But when do teachers have time to do all this knitting?

  1. jen macdougall permalink

    I think crocheting is faster – and since we are all ‘bricoleurs’ apparently an eclectic approach to our crafts might be warranted ; )

    However, I think SQA is not alone in providing internally assessed qualifications (for ESOL and other subjects) City and Guilds Skills for Life exams are examples. This comes from their website:

    What’s involved in delivering this course?
    To deliver these qualifications you will need suitably qualified staff to carry out training and assessment.
    You will also need suitable facilities to carry out the required training to enable learners to achieve industry standards

    Plus it is normal in many countries for final mainstream school exams and even university entrance exams to be internally designed and assessed within individual schools (so that begs the question of national standards) – just saying

    But I agree that there is definitely tension between the ability to contextualise our assessments and, particularly, the reliability of such assessment.

    • Thanks for this, Jen. The internal assessment aspect does raise some standardisation questions, but I find that if I accept SQA ESOL qualifications for what they are I can see plenty of positives. I just resent having to write the assessments, that’s all.

  2. jen macdougall permalink

    I guess that’s what we work with. Maybe the problem is not having to write the assessment (which could have potential benefits in terms of context and assessing ‘naturally occurring language’) but practical problems of appropriate training and being given the time in our workloads to do it.

  3. Richenda Askew permalink

    I know my experience with SQA is minimal, but I did get a great deal of job satisfaction from “making my own jumper” ensuring that it was a good fit and I think it was better for the students. Once I had got my head round the “design your own” aspect it became far less prescriptive than many of the other exams which must be a good thing. Standardisation is an issue, but I don’t think it’s limited to SQA-type systems only.

    • Yes, Richenda, I agree that there is something quite liberating about knitting your own jumpers. You can follow the pattern but choose the material that is most appropriate to your context. It does affect standardisation though – some teachers are bound to be better at knitting than others – and time is also a major issue. I had expected the awarding body to also provide the assessments, and they do. But many of us look at the SQA Nabs and think we could do better, which doesn’t exactly instil confidence.

  4. jen macdougall permalink

    yes, but maybe the ‘I can do better’ philosophy gets us knitting more prolifically!

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  1. Changing Faces: Developments in ESOL in the West of Scotland since 2002. | The Stevebrown70 Blog

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