Scotland's exam body 'in crisis' after decision to downgrade 124,000 results sparks furious backlash

Dan Sanderson
·6-min read
John Swinney, the education secretary, defended the system -  Andy Buchanan/PA
John Swinney, the education secretary, defended the system - Andy Buchanan/PA

Scotland’s exams authority is braced for a deluge of appeals from angry and distraught teenagers after tens of thousands of crucial results were downgraded under a system condemned as unfair and “grossly unequal”.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) came under intense fire on Tuesday after it rejected teacher recommendations for the grades pupils should have been awarded, had this year’s exams not been axed due to coronavirus, in more than a quarter of cases.

Across National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, 133,762 - 26.2 per cent - of entries were adjusted with the vast majority receiving worse results than their teachers had suggested.

Nicola Sturgeon argued that the “moderation” process was necessary as if teacher recommendations had been accepted without changes, results would have been vastly inflated compared to previous years, which would have raised questions over the credibility of the qualifications.

However, the formula used to change teacher judgements, which was only revealed on Tuesday following months of secrecy, came under scrutiny after it emerged that the school a pupil attended played a major role in determining whether or not a grade was lowered. 

In Highers, those from the poorest parts of Scotland were more than twice as likely to see their grade lowered than those from the richest areas, causing pupils and parents to question whether their background was behind their lower than expected results.

Some parents said they would consider taking legal action if the “unfathomable” grades their children received were not fixed on appeal.

Dylan Quigley finding out his exam results with his sister Louise at Linwood High in Renfrewshire - Jeff Holmes /PA
Dylan Quigley finding out his exam results with his sister Louise at Linwood High in Renfrewshire - Jeff Holmes /PA

Jamie Greene, education spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said the “disaster” on exam results day had left the SQA in crisis. He drew comparisons with an infamous exams fiasco in 2000, when Nicola Sturgeon, then an opposition MSP, demanded that the education minister “carry the can” for the chaos. 

"It is fundamentally unfair to make assumptions about a pupil based on where they live,” Mr Greene said. "It risks widening the attainment gap to an almost unassailable degree.

"The 2020 SQA results may equally go down in history as a shambles with the SNP at the helm of it, and the people who will suffer most are this generation of Scotland’s pupils who face a horrendously uncertain time in the days ahead."

Exams were cancelled in Scotland this year, meaning they were not held for the first time since 1888. The SQA said it would judge pupils based on teacher assessments but said a system of adjustment was necessary to protect the integrity of awards. It had considered consulting with schools ahead of announcing results, but did not proceed with the plan.

Had all grades been awarded in line with teacher judgements, pass rates for National 5 would have risen by 10.4 percentage points compared to last year, pass rates for Highers would have risen by 14 points while for Advanced Highers, the increase would have been 13.4 points.

Defending the system, John Swinney, the education secretary, said such an annual change had “never been seen” in exam results. Following the changes to grades, awards were still higher than usual, with National 5 passes up 2.9 percentage points on last year, Higher passes up 4.1 points and Advanced Highers up 5.5 points.

Fiona Robertson, the chief executive of the SQA, said in a media briefing that some teachers “may have been optimistic” in the estimates they provided. She added: “We moderated in order to ensure fairness across Scotland and maintain standards.”

However, the body came in for heavy criticism from across the political spectrum. The process was described as a “trainwreck” by the Scottish Liberal Democrats. 

Beatrice Wishart, the party’s education spokeswoman, said: "We are already seeing pupils, teachers and in some cases, entire classes, complaining that their grades have been dropped dramatically, in many cases turning passes into fails.”

Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish Secretary, claimed a “generation of young Scots” had been let down. He pointed to figures that showed the Higher pass rate among pupils from the most deprived postcode areas had been downgraded by 15.2 percentage points, compared with 6.9 points in the most affluent.

He said: “How can we improve the life chances of young children from the poorest backgrounds when the system bakes in inequality like this?”

Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, said: “Pupils are having their futures disadvantaged and it seems to be for no other reason than the school they go to. This is frankly disturbing and grossly unequal." 

Of the grades that were changed from teacher recommendations, just 6.9 per cent received a higher grade, with 93.1 per cent of changes leading to lower grades. In 96 per cent of cases where a change was made, it was by one grade either way. Appeals this year will be free, with the system likely to be swamped by disappointed pupils challenging results.

Even usually loyal SNP politicians raised concerns about the system, with Mhairi Black, the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, saying she was “deeply concerned” at the revelations that poorer pupils had been hit harder by the changes. She added: “The Scottish Government must address this”.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, said several aspects of the SQAs methodology was “potentially very unfair”.

He said the evidence showing people from poorer areas were more likely to have grades downgraded caused significant concern, while the ‘sacrosanct’ treatment of rankings of students provided by teachers meant one pupil could never overtake another in the same class.

He added that ‘tolerance ranges’ used in the formula, based on historical school results, potentially discriminated against outstanding students in large schools or popular subjects, as they would be more likely to see their grades pulled down. 

He added: “The whole process lacked transparency from the start. It’s not an exercise in defensible policy making.”

Speaking at her daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon defended the system but urged students to appeal if they did not believe they had been treated fairly.

The First Minister said that without the moderation, a 19.8 per cent increase of the pass rate among the poorest fifth of pupils would have been "unprecedented and therefore not credible".

She added: “What we want to make sure is that this year's results have the degree of credibility that means that they are not so out of sync with previous years that people are going to look at them and say 'they don't make any sense'."

The SQA said its moderation process had ensured "fairness to all learners" and maintained "standards and credibility" in the qualification system.

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