SQA appeals system still 'not fit for purpose' as students blocked from appealing

SQA Where’s Our Say are calling on the Scottish Government to allow for a direct appeals system for those unhappy with their teacher estimates and who are being blocked by their school

By Conor Matchett
Tuesday, 1st September 2020, 7:30 am
Updated Tuesday, 1st September 2020, 7:58 am
Pupils campaigned against the SQA's exam results system before a government u-turn. Picture: John Devlin

Pupils who disagree with their teacher’s estimates for their higher results could be missing out on university places due to the SQA’s appeal process being “unfit for purpose”, a leading children’s rights academic has said.

Dr Tracy Kirk is working alongside the youth-led campaign group SQA Where’s Our Say who have said the appeals system is stacked against some learners and will leave many without the grades they deserve.

Earlier in August, the Scottish Government performed an embarrassing u-turn after a week of protests and controversy around the algorithmic methodology for awarding grades to students this year in lieu of exam results.

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SQA Where’s Our Say are now calling for the creation of a direct access to appeals for students who disagree with the grades given to them by teachers and who are unable to appeal as schools refuse to submit the appeals.

Dr Kirk, who is a children’s rights academic at Glasgow Caledonian University, told this newspaper the current appeals process also flies in the face of the Scottish Government’s Getting It Right For Every Child framework.

She said: “At the moment they have restricted the appeals so much that the young people who do feel that their personal circumstances have lead to them being disadvantaged are not being heard.

"That is contrary to what Nicola Sturgeon promised and I think when you make a promise to young people you should uphold that and she is usually very good at that, the Scottish Government has a good reputation when it comes to children’s rights and I think that is what makes this particularly hard to take.

"There’s not a child centred approach, if you don’t fit within the category of the appeals which are very narrow then you don’t have any recourse to get things done.

"We’ve ended up with individuals being used as numbers and the appeals system is not fit for purpose to help with that. We need this change really quite quickly so that young people who are impacted can ask for their appeal.”

Scottish Labour’s Daniel Johnson, who represents Edinburgh Southern as an MSP, backed the call for direct appeals and said young people have had their “rights infringed”.

He said: “The SQA grading scandal is far from resolved as the cases raised by ’SQA: Where’s our say’ make clear. For young people leaving school this year, they have no independent recourse to appeal and no chance of re-sitting an exam they never got to sit. This is fundamentally unfair and will have a lasting impact on the rest of their lives.”

“It’s also important to highlight the residual impact on the use of the SQA’s statistical algorithm has not been removed. The forced ranking of grades, means that some students had grades suppressed. Far from sorting this out, the Scottish Government have fundamental questions to answer about how they allowed such an inequitable method for assigning grades to be used.”

“Fundamentally young people have had their rights infringed. Your exam grades should reflect your performance and effort and you should have the opportunity to demonstrate that. Exam candidates have been denied that this year meaning that there is a small but significant number or young people with lower grades than they would have achieved if they had sat an exam."

Responding to the concerns at the Scottish Government’s daily briefing, education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney defended the appeals system.

He said: “The SQA put in place appeal routes which enable young people to go to their school where they believe their circumstances merit an appeal and schools can take forward those appeals to the SQA.

“We obviously changed fundamentally the way in which we certificated this year and significantly expanded, with a major increase in the pass rate at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, the number of young people being accredited with qualifications.

"I think the arguments for further expansion of the appeal system to me don’t seem to be strongly borne by the changes that were made in the grading approach that was taken by listening very carefully to individual teachers.

"That obviously the universities are making judgements about places that are available for young people. The government has made clear that it will fund the expansion of places to enable more students to be accommodated in our universities as a consequence of the fact that more young people will have passed the threshold of accessing universities than was the case beforehand.”

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