Blog: Why the SQA's appeals process could be failing young people

Ailsa Clark, founder and development manager at Inspiralba, talks to our youth work and schools manager Marielle Bruce about why the time for reform of qualifications and assessment is now.

Pupils sitting exams in an exam hall.

Ailsa Clark, Inspiralba

I’ve worked in youth work in one form or another for the past 30 years, often with young people who have been disaffected and ill-served by mainstream education.  After 15 years in the public sector, a good chunk of which was leading employment training delivery for the local authority, I founded Inspiralba in 2009 as a charity and social enterprise with a focus on supporting rural community-led enterprise and employability opportunities.  I’m also a mum of two teenagers. 

Student success in Scottish education is too narrowly defined by exam results. The Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment agreed; making several recommendations to ensure we value the diverse achievements of all learners. Until we see how these recommendations are to be taken forward, there are young people currently being failed by our system of qualifications and assessment. I was reminded of this when I saw the SQA appeals process this year 

This year, the emphasis is on the young person, or their parent/carer to launch an appeal.  Whilst the option of appealing through the school remains open, my concern is that all of this requires a certain level of confidence, understanding of the risks involved (re-marking could result in a lower award) and parental support. It’s disproportionately unfair for families with limited digital skills or for young people from more chaotic backgrounds, who may not have the support to navigate the appeals process. It’s fundamentally at odds with the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling inequalities.   

Student receives exam results text message on her phone.
The SQA's appeals process could be a further barrier for disadvantaged young people.

Additionally, the appeals process doesn’t appear to involve any reflection on previous work or ‘prelims’ – only a remark of the exam to check for any anomalies. To have any ‘exceptional circumstances’ taken into consideration also seems to be predicated on the school being aware of this at the time of the exam. In my experience, some young people would not talk to their teachers about difficult circumstances that may have impacted on their ability to demonstrate their achievements fully during an exam.  

It is therefore critically important that young people have access to someone who can check in to see how exams went and provide extra support if there is scope for an appeal. A trusted adult, like a youth worker, who can help them navigate the system and advocate on their behalf, alongside parents.  

I hope there is a review of this year’s appeals process in the context of addressing the attainment gap, with analysis to determine the level of appeals coming through from more disadvantaged households.  I also hope that the young people who may benefit from an appeal receive support to access and navigate the system of appeals with information provided on their banding, to enable them to make a risk assessment of the potential positive and negative impact of remarking.  But the clock is ticking and the window for appeals is only open until 29th August!

Marielle Bruce, Youth Work & Schools Manager, YouthLink Scotland

Ailsa’s concerns highlight the crucial role youth workers play in the lives of many young people – as trusted adults, advocates and educators.  

The value of this person-centred support is immeasurable when it comes to potentially daunting processes such as launching an appeal directly to the SQA. It really can be the difference between success and failure – there are no gray areas in the eyes of the formal education system. 

Youth work is part of the Scottish education system. In schools, communities and colleges, youth workers deliver support and non-formal learning opportunities to help children and young people develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to reach their potential in learning, life and work. As Ailsa highlights, this can be particularly crucial for young people experiencing poverty and other barriers to achieving their potential through education. 

Youth workers embedded within schools can increase attendance, attainment and wellbeing.

As part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, youth work helps to improve health and wellbeing, attendance and engagement with learning, attainment, achievement and positive post-school destinations. This is recognised in guidance to head teachers in their use of Pupil Equity Funding. It was further highlighted by The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills at the Scottish Attainment Challenge conference on 5 June 2023, who spoke of the vital role of partnership working and the value of youth work partners.  

If schools cannot close the poverty-related attainment gap on their own, then we need to ensure that our most disadvantaged children and young people have access to the support and opportunities they need through a renewed focus on partnership.  

This is the aim of YouthLink Scotland’s Scottish Attainment Challenge national programme, which works to strengthen collaboration between schools and youth work. We’ve developed a suite of resources, professional learning and support for schools and youth work practitioners.  

I believe this is also why it’s imperative that education reform recognises the vital place of youth work in Scottish education, further strengthening its role in delivering an education that fosters excellence and equity by ensuring that every young person has a right to access youth work as part of their education offer.