The SQA’s credibility is in tatters after this results fiasco – John McLellan

Nicola Sturgeon could not be clearer about the Scottish exams furore. “There are young people who do not have the correct results and who therefore cannot make decisions about their immediate future”.
Pupils check their email for their exam results from the SQA – many were set to be disappointed (Picture: John Devlin)Pupils check their email for their exam results from the SQA – many were set to be disappointed (Picture: John Devlin)
Pupils check their email for their exam results from the SQA – many were set to be disappointed (Picture: John Devlin)

Except this was not the First Minister and this was not this week, but 20 years ago when she was the SNP’s education spokesperson and the Labour-Lib Dem coalition was presiding over a fiasco at the newly formed Scottish Qualifications Authority which delayed the results for weeks.

But as thousands of young people queue up to appeal their grades this year, the effect is the same; their immediate futures are in limbo. Like 2000, when pressure built behind the scenes, the SQA must have known as the results were being prepared they were sitting on political dynamite.

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To be fair, the SQA would probably take flak no matter what happened, but it could choose the target. Even without hindsight, grade inflation could have been explained by the extraordinary circumstances but instead it chose to downgrade 125,000 estimated results and leave thousands of pupils and their teachers reeling.

The fact that overall the grades of all three sets showed an increase in the number of passes (Nat 5 +2.9, Higher +4.1 and Advanced Higher +5.5) was not going to cut any mustard when so many students from the poorest backgrounds had grades knocked down, 15 per cent in the most deprived 20 per cent, compared to seven in the wealthiest fifth.

Unlike 2000, the First Minister took the side of the establishment, saying that following teachers’ estimates would have given the system a credibility problem, so it didn’t take much for teachers to interpret that as the First Minister saying they lacked credibility. The problem is not as much one of transparency as credibility and even now the SQA’s process is far from clear and it looks like the system was prioritised ahead of those young people whose expectations were raised and then cruelly dashed.

The SQA posted a jolly cartoon video about the moderation system and it appears to have been an entirely statistical exercise and with little, if any, studying of exam scripts. Presumably, that will come in the now inevitable avalanche of appeals, but then what guarantee is there that shoring up the system is the priority rather than individual performance?

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It may be that when the planned exams were cancelled any pretence of maintaining a consistent standard with previous years should also have been abandoned, because asking teachers to give an honest assessment of their pupils abilities but then subject the recommendations to a mathematical formula based on statistics gleaned from an entirely different system was a recipe for disaster.

I’m not a schoolteacher, but I do teach at a university which involves setting and marking both exams and assignments and I’d be aghast if my grading was altered without consultation by someone who hadn’t read the papers.

Admittedly, time was impossibly short as the virus spread rapidly and to get any kind of system in place was an impressive achievement, but teachers should not have been put in the invidious position of having to pass judgement on pupils they knew well, only for their assessments to be rejected. For all the slack being cut for other organisations doing their best to cope in extraordinary circumstances, that was never going to apply to devastating the hopes and dreams of thousands of school leavers.

Let’s also remember education was supposed to be the SNP’s top priority and the First Minister put her best minister in charge of schools because Scotland’s school performance continued to deteriorate after the botched introduction of Curriculum for Excellence.

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What we’ve ended up with is an exam system which, according to leading educationalists like Prof Lyndsay Paterson and the original CfE architect Keir Bloomer, has been lacking credibility for years and now teachers are being told the credibility problem is theirs.

Scotland has slid down international education league tables and there was no sign of a change before the virus struck. Maybe exam systems elsewhere will be beset by the same kind of problems exposed this week but that will be of no comfort to the Scottish students most affected.

The SQA website proudly boasts it is “the heart of Scotland’s world-renowned education system.” This week it needs a quadruple by-pass.