Swinney under mounting pressure after exams day 'debacle'

Dan Sanderson
·3-min read
The education secretary has defended the system - Pool/Gerry
The education secretary has defended the system - Pool/Gerry

John Swinney must fix an exam day “debacle” or his position as Education Secretary will become “untenable”, his critics have said.

There has been widespread anger after the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) downgraded marks in 124,000 cases, after normal exams were axed due to coronavirus. 

The “moderation” process was applied to estimates for pupil grades which were provided by teachers to the exam board, using a controversial formula which relied heavily on a school’s past performance. 

There have been claims, rejected by the Scottish Government, that this disadvantaged children in poorer areas where results are typically lower.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said that Mr Swinney’s credibility had been “shot to pieces”. The education secretary also presided over the controversial reopening of schools this summer, in which he performed a major u-turn following a backlash from parents.

“He cannot continue to defend this unfair treatment of Scotland’s young people and unacceptable lack of trust in their teachers,” Mr Gray said. An immediate review into this debacle must be commenced.”

He added: “The Deputy First Minister and the government he serves have lost the confidence of parents and pupils. John Swinney must apologise and act to fix this shambles or his position will be untenable.”

A deluge of appeals from pupils who had their grades lowered is expected. The SQA said these would be considered on a case-by-case basis, with teachers submitting evidence to support their original judgements, with past school performance not a factor.

While critics have claimed the system has mainly disadvantaged poorer pupils, a leading private school headteacher yesterday joined the criticism, saying almost a third of his pupils had seen their marks downgraded.

Rod Grant, head of £13,000-per-year Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh, branded the situation an "absolute shambles".

Teachers at the school submitted 436 predicted grade results to the SQA ahead of results day, but the accrediting body downgraded 138 pupils' marks. He is now calling for an urgent full-scale independent review to be held.

He said: "Is it not the ultimate irony when members of our teaching staff have been invited to assess appeals but whose own results have been called into question?

"I sincerely hope the SQA is ready to deal with the 125,000 appeals that are now likely to land on its desk.”

Speaking at her daily briefing, Nicola Sturgeon urged any pupils disappointed after seeing their marks downgraded to appeal. The Scottish Government has said changing grades was essential to protect the integrity of exams, as if teacher predictions were accepted without question, grades would have been vastly inflated.

“It is not the end of the journey,” the First Minister said. “We now go into a process of individual moderation, which is the appeals process. I’d say to young people who are disappointed… I’m really sorry we had a situation this year where we had to put in place something different. We’re trying to get it right.”