SCOTLAND’S schools assessment and exams system looks set for a digital overhaul as pressure grows for reform to ensure it is fit for the 21st-century.

Senior figures at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) told MSPs that responding to the Covid-19 pandemic had revealed new horizons for using technology to offer electronic and remote testing.

The remarks could signal the start of a reduced or more limited role for timed pen-and-paper tests, exam halls and traditional, in-person invigilation.

Dr Gill Stewart, the SQA’s director of qualifications development, said “e-assessment” should be “part of our toolbox”. She added that work had already begun on adapting short question papers used in some courses.

It comes as Shirley-Anne Somerville, Cabinet Secretary for Education, considers two major reports in which options are set out for revamping Scottish schooling. Published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the documents highlight significant weaknesses within current arrangements.

The more recent of the two, authored by Professor Gordon Stobart and looking at upper secondary school assessment, warns that the introduction of National Qualifications has “done little to move away from the dominance of examination preparation, with its emphasis on memory and past paper drills”.

It also proposes a raft of reforms and innovations. These include increased use of information technology to provide online examination resources and the incorporation of e-portfolio and personal projects for external marking.

Ms Somerville has already announced that the SQA will be replaced, with standards body Education Scotland set to be stripped of its inspection role.

Dr Stewart told Holyrood's Education, Children and Young People Committee: “There are other more far-reaching lessons for the education system as a whole around about how we develop our remote learning and teaching, not as a substitute for face-to-face learning but as an additional strengthening of learning and teaching. But, similarly, around assessment, we need to invest, both centrally in SQA and its successor body but also locally, in technology to ‘e-enable’ assessment so that we do future-proof ourselves against things like a pandemic or another type of scenario.”

She added: “E-assessment is very much, should be, part of our toolbox, really, of assessment approaches. And we’ve started to explore, even with the existing courses, some of the practical courses, how we could turn what are effectively short question papers now into e-assessments.

“I think how SQA receives evidence from schools and colleges – if we could do that digitally, and build an infrastructure to do that digitally, and to be able to carry out all of our marking electronically and the quality assurance processes. There’s a lot of coursework as well that features in national courses. For example, for a music course – people have to perform on a number of different instruments, so, in the future, could we do that remotely?

“Similarly [with] art and design, there’s a big portfolio of art work and design work that young people currently [have to physically send] to SQA – but how could we use technology to do that digitally [and] in a much more streamlined way?

“And that would also open up opportunities as well to the sorts of things that could be assessed in the future.”

Fiona Robertson, SQA chief executive, said: “There’s a Programme for Government commitment around a national digital academy, which is focused in particular on learning and teaching, but there are opportunities there around assessment as well. So I think there are potentially some really good developments in thinking around some of those issues, which could lead to the possibility of remote assessment.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are currently considering how assessments should look in the future.

“Our decisions will be informed by seeking a wide range of views, including those of teachers, pupils, carers and education professionals. Technology is a vital aspect of an education system in the digital age.”