MSPs have demanded answers from the chief executive of Scotland’s exam body at the centre of a grades fiasco – urging the organisation to “improve its communication with learners and rebuild trust in the qualifications system”.

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson appeared in front of Holyrood’s Education Committee amid a U-turn by the Scottish Government after thousands of grades estimated by teachers were downgraded through moderation – with those from less affluent schools being more heavily impacted.

The change of heart by the Scottish Government reverted qualifications back to the original teacher estimates.

During her evidence, Ms Robertson stressed the SQA had done all it could to carry out instructions from the Scottish Government – pointing to evidence that less than half of teacher estimates were accurate last year, requiring the body to consider moderation.

But Clare Adamson, convener of the education committee, has written to Ms Robertson, raising concerns over individual students still being unable to appeal their results, as well as appeals not being allowed for “extenuating circumstances”, such as illness or family bereavement – or that an error took place with teacher estimates.

Appeals, which must be submitted by schools rather than individual pupils, can be handed over if an administrative error took place when teacher estimates were drawn up, as well as on any occasion where a grades estimate was impacted by discrimination – which comes to light during a centre’s internal review process.

Schools can also submit an appeal to the SQA when the head of centre believes there has been an error within the SQA’s internal processes for confirming results following the Scottish Government U-turn.

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In her letter, Ms Adamson states that this year’s appeals are “an area of urgent interest” to both MSPs and pupils and has stressed that “it is vital this new process is properly and effectively communicated”, in a bid to “avoid compounding the challenges already faced by learners”.

Ms Adamson has asked Ms Robertson why the SQA has prevented individual students from lodging an appeal and “why there is not route for appeals on the basis of extenuating circumstances” or when a teacher estimate was wrong.

She added: “From your evidence, it is clear that the appeals process was a key element in the SQA's plans for this year, and you told us the SQA ‘were ready for a higher volume of appeals this year’.

“Why was this not made more explicit in advance to pupils, parents and schools and what reflection has the SQA made on how similar circumstances could be more clearly communicated in future years?

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“Looking forward, we believe the SQA must improve its communication with learners and rebuild trust in the qualifications system, and we expect the SQA will reflect on these observations.”

Ms Robertson has been asked to provide details of actions the SQA will undertake to “rebuild trust with teachers, parents and students” and whether an internal review will be carried out.

Ms Adamson has also raised concerns that the qualification body’s technical consultation and survey for changes to be made to next year’s exam timetable is “narrowly focused on the SQA’s own proposals without a discussion of other options and that the consultation on contingency models for the timing of the diet is not open to all”.

She added: “Although we all hope that next year’s exam diet can be carried out in its usual manner, we recognise that this may not be possible, and therefore have a number of initial queries relating to next year’s exam diet.”

Ms Robertson has been asked a host of questions over next year’s exams including “what contingency models have been proposed” and whether any plans will “support certification of there were significant disruptions” due to a lockdown being imposed.

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MSPs have also called for reassurance if in the event exams are unable to go ahead in 2021, “how does the SQA plan to address the equalities issues which clearly emerged in the initial set of results” this year.

Ms Adamson added: “I should note at this point that we will keep a watching brief on this issue throughout the rest of this parliamentary session given the level of importance attached to ensuring next year’s exam diet is prepared for all eventualities.

“As you are aware, the Scottish Government has asked Professor Mark Priestley to lead an independent review into cancellation of the exam diet and the alternative certification model put in place by the SQA. We have written to Professor Priestley and will continue to follow the work of the review.”