The SQA's functions and responsibilities are laid out in the Education (Scotland) Act as amended by the Scottish Qualifications Act. Until their merger, the two major Scottish examination authorities were the SEB (Scottish Examination Board) and the Scottish Vocational Education Council (SCOTVEC). It is the former of the two that issued the school-level examinations, then called Standard Grade, Higher Grade and Certificate of Sixth Year Studies (CSYS). A legacy of its two precursor bodies, the Authority's offices remain split over two sites, one in Glasgow and one in Dalkeith.
Under a major reform of Scottish exams (the National Qualifications or "Higher Still" reforms). The main effect of this was to replace CSYS with a broadly equivalent qualification called Advanced Higher. Some curriculum changes were also made to the Higher grade at this time. The introduction of the reformed examinations system was criticised in the press and by the government after a series of administrative and computer errors led to several thousand incorrect Higher and Intermediate certificates being sent out. The crisis took several months to resolve, and several management figures, including the Chief Executive Ron Tuck, resigned or were fired.
SQA has a statutory responsibility to provide public examinations for Scottish state schools, though these are also used more widely. It has a statutory responsibility to accredit vocational qualifications (that is formally scrutinise them and confirm that they conform to agreed UK criteria). None of its qualifications, still less its vocational qualifications, is protected by statute, but the Authority has a largely dominant position within all sectors of qualifications within Scotland. SQA awards are also exported to a number of countries including China, Africa, the Middle East, Russia and former Soviet republics and other countries. SQA also provides the licensing certification for many merchant navies throughout the world.
A National Qualification (NQ) can take the form of Standard Grades or National Courses.
Standard Grades have been in existence before the Higher Still reforms. There are three Standard Grade Levels: Foundation, General and Credit. They are normally set at age 14-15 (sometimes at age 16 if birthday is before May), usually when attending High School.
National Courses were introduced with the "Higher Still" reforms. There are seven National Courses: Access 1, Access 2, Access 3, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2, Higher (normally at age 15-18) and Advanced Higher (normally at age 17-18). Intermediate 1 and 2 and Access 3 are either set at age 16 in place of Standard Grade in some schools or at ages 16–18 in addition to Highers and Advanced Highers. National Courses can be taken in a wide range of subjects, from the purely academic, such as English and Mathematics - to the purely vocational, such as Accounting and Mental Health Care. They combine three National Units, each lasting 40 hours with a Course Assessment, normally taken at the end of a one-year Course in the early summer.
In addition to traditional National Qualification Courses, a new suite of "pre-vocational" courses entitled "Skills for Work" was rolled out. Primarily available at Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 levels, these prevocational courses, aim to give students an awareness of the workplace environment, the skills required for entry to an industry as well as generic employment skills. Each of these Courses is awarded on the Scottish Qualifications Certificate.
Many faculties that provide SQA National Courses also provide preliminary examinations, or prelim exams. These usually take place in January or February, or even in late November or December; although this is usually only in the case of Standard Grades, many months before the diet of official examinations.
According to SQA, all National Qualifications will be redesigned as follows in the future:
According to the SQA, the new qualifications have "more focus on skills development compared to the existing qualifications [...] There is also a greater emphasis on 'deeper learning' by helping learners to think for themselves; to apply and interpret the knowledge and understanding they have developed and to demonstrate the skills they have learned."
National 1-4 will be assessed internally by the student's own institution, subject to regulation by the SQA. National 5 courses and above will also have a number of internal assessments, followed by an externally marked exam.
Since the introduction of Highers, Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 courses, the SQA have also introduced a National Assessment Bank of short examinations for each subject. These are more commonly known as NABs or unit assessments, and contain questions from specific academic units at a basic level. Each candidate must pass a certain number of NABs (usually three) before they can be presented for the final examination, although resits can occur with other NAB materials.
The National Assessment Bank materials are available for download as Word or PDF files on a secure SQA website. The only person who can enter the site is the SQA coordinator of each institution. For national 4 and 5 courses NABs are usually taken 3 times throughout the session when units have been completed and appear on the candidates certificate as a unit pass even if the candidate does not pass the whole course e.g. "No award in national 5 english but passed a unit internally."
Students for National Qualifications receive their results on, generally, the first Tuesday in August. Students signed up for the authority's MySQA system are able to check their record online throughout the year and get their exam results by text and/or email on the day that the results are issued. Those signed up to the service received their results one day earlier than the official postal results. This also occurred in subsequent years, however only due to a mistake by the company holding the results. In another incident, the SQA itself sent the results out on the right day, but Robert Gordon University's business school leaked whether students had been let in, and a technical error with St Andrew's University's website also leaked the results of applicants.
Due to the high volume of exam marking with Scottish and British examination boards in general where it is thought that exam marking inaccuracies may occur, there are each year a vast number of students requesting for an exam "re-mark". After the SQA introduced fees (which were exorbitant in many students' and parents' opinion), requests for exam remarking plummeted 55,000 students - a decline of 77%.
In order to fight (supposed) grade inflation within the Scottish education sector; SQA has introduced academically and cognitively more rigorous examination standards and stricter marking; this has resulted in strong criticism towards the SQA exam board and in decreases of exam pass rates of up to 15%.
There are the many qualifications often imperfectly referred to as vocational, though these are frequently stepping-stones for students at Scottish Colleges of Further Education to pursue one- or two- year programmes tailored from a wide ranging catalogue of National Units. The actual programme may be very rigidly prescribed by employers or be entirely freely chosen by the student to meet particular needs. The prescribed programmes may be recognised by a National Certificate or a Scottish Progression Award.
Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ) are an award for vocational education and training awarded by the SQA or other approved awarding bodies in conjunction with industry bodies. Scottish National Qualifications and Scottish Progression Awards are often important in a Modern Apprenticeship scheme along with SVQs. SVQs are developed by United Kingdom employers in tandem with National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
SVQ are assessed in the workplace (or closely regulated training workshops) by employers, training providers or colleges approved and monitored by the SQA (or other awarding bodies) accredited by its independent Accreditation Unit.
Qualifications aimed at students in their first two years of Higher Education include HNCs (Higher National Certificates)- taken as a one-year full-time course or as a two-year part-time course — and HNDs (Higher National Diplomas). These qualifications are extremely popular in colleges, workplaces and community education centres in Scotland, the rest of the UK and throughout the world.
These include specific qualifications for those with severe to moderate difficulties (Access), the right to aid in completing assessments (for example, a scribe) and the right to challenge any unfair or artificial barrier in the rules for any qualification
There is a suite of National Units addressing the needs of economic migrants, asylum seekers and (the biggest group) those seeking to master English before returning to their own countries. It has also developed qualifications for those seeking to teach English to refugees.
SQA is one of the four partner national organisations involved in the Curriculum for Excellence. It works with partners on all strands of the development. Its principal role is to contribute to work on qualifications and assessment. SQA’s role in Curriculum for Excellence is to design and develop the new qualifications and assessment.
SQA has joined with Universities Scotland, QAA Scotland and the Scottish Government to create the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework or SCQF. Every Scottish qualification — from the Access level for those with learning difficulties to a Doctorate and including vocational as well as ESOL and BSL qualifications — is allocated a level and credit value within this framework, which all partners have agreed to recognise.
The Higher Maths exam sat by students in May 2015 was said to be far too difficult. This evoked heated debates among students, teachers and educationalists; the corresponding grade boundaries for the respective exam were thus adjusted accordingly, with a pass mark as low as 34%. The SQA later admitted that one of their Higher Maths exam papers had been unusually hard and unfit for purpose.
Several exams that were set from the SQA in 2016 were criticised by pupils, parents, teachers and MSPs.
SQA were criticised by students and teachers after their change to the Higher English exam paper after questions were leaked.
The National 5 Maths exam, sat on 12th May 2016, in particular Paper 1 (non-calculator), was also criticised by students after being considered much more difficult than previous years. A petition was created by students which was to be sent to the SQA demanding to know why the exam was exceedingly difficult, and it gained over 25,000 signatures. An SQA Spokesperson issued a statement, stating the exam was fit for purpose and allowed students to show their understanding of the National 5 Maths Course. The questions themselves were on the course syllabus they were just questions that candidates found difficult to get their heads around.
Scottish Green MSP, Ross Greer criticised the SQA for mistakes in the National 5 Computing Science exam and called for an investigation into the exam, he defended teachers and students who thought that this was the worst exam ever set by the SQA. The SQA later admitted that the exam had mistakes.