Our young people are the victims of a grave injustice – Ian Murray

Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South (Picture: Ian Rutherford)Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
Children’s futures have been decided based on their postcode and not their school performance – and that’s a national scandal, writes Ian Murray

This year’s exam results were always going to create controversy, with Covid-19 taking a wrecking ball to traditional exams.

But nobody was prepared for the way that existing and long-term inequalities would be hard-baked into the system by the Scottish Government.

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And for the First Minister to then stand up, blame teachers and justify the situation by explaining that an attainment gap already exists so therefore should be maintained is a staggering and unforgiveable dereliction of duty on a young person’s future.

This year’s exams were cancelled with schools shut due to Covid-19 (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)This year’s exams were cancelled with schools shut due to Covid-19 (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
This year’s exams were cancelled with schools shut due to Covid-19 (Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

Today, I stand with the parents and pupils across Edinburgh who have been so badly let down.

Nothing anyone says in response to this national scandal should take away from the hard work of pupils and teachers.

They studied for their prelims and their course work before Covid-19 disrupted the remaining few months of the school year, and their teachers estimated their final grades based on this.

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But the SQA decided it knows better than the teachers and so a “moderation” calculation was applied. The moderation resulted in 133,000 entries being adjusted from the initial teachers’ estimate, or around a quarter of all entries, with a staggering 93 per cent adjusted down at least one grade.

That’s the kind of difference which can decide whether a child goes to university or not.

Nicola Sturgeon said this was done because teachers’ gradings were “not credible”. What an astonishing insult to Scotland’s teachers who have performed near miracles this year.

But here’s the real scandal: while the Higher pass rate reduced by 6.9 percentage points for children from the richest communities in Scotland, it was cut by 15.2 per cent for children living in the poorest neighbourhoods.

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In other words, children living in deprived areas had their exam results estimated by their teachers downgraded by more than double the rate of their peers from affluent backgrounds.

That’s deciding a child’s future based on their postcode and not their performance.

Since the results were announced, there have been heart-breaking stories of children whose dreams have been shattered. Youngsters who scored an A in their prelims downgraded by an algorithm because their school is in a deprived neighbourhood. Hard-wiring inequality.

How on earth can we ever hope to end the injustice in our society when barriers like this exist?

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I was proud to go to Wester Hailes Education Centre, where for many years there has been inspirational and innovative work carried out by hard-working teachers and pupils.

I certainly wouldn’t be where am I today without the their support, and I know hundreds of other former pupils can say the same.

But the school finds itself in one of the Capital’s most deprived neighbourhoods, and I now fear pupils there will be among those unjustly penalised this year because of where they live. If it was in my time I wouldn’t have been able to go to university as my grades would have been lowered.

Undoubtedly, there are now major questions for the SQA. But ultimately the buck stops with the Education Secretary, John Swinney, and the First Minister. Ms Sturgeon asked us to judge her on her performance in charge of Scotland’s education system. Well, it’s a fail from me. But, more importantly, she has failed a generation of young Scots.

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The problem at the heart of this deprivation standardisation is that it can be simultaneously unfair to pupils while claiming to maintain system integrity. However, if system integrity damages the life chances of individuals, then it is not much of a system at all.

We have a duty to an entire generation of young Scots to build a more socially just and fairer society. We cannot let them down again. That’s why next year’s Scottish elections must not be about another divisive and distracting referendum.

Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South

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