Hundreds faced five or more grades being downgraded as SNP accused of 'knowingly failing' Scottish pupils

The moderation system initially backed by education secretary John Swinney would have seen hundreds of school pupils have five or more of their grades downgraded by the SQA.

Saturday, 10th October 2020, 7:00 am
Protests from pupils eventually forced the Scottish Government into a u-turn.
Protests from pupils eventually forced the Scottish Government into a u-turn.

Opposition parties said figures that showed more than 11,000 Scottish pupils would have seen three or more grades lowered by the qualifications authority should have been a clear red flag to both Mr Swinney and the SQA that the system was fatally flawed.

Most starkly, 408 students would have seen five or more of their grades lowered by the SQA’s algorithm.

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The Scottish Conservatives said the figures confirmed the SNP’s ‘shambolic’ handling of the 2020 exams while Scottish Labour said the fact Mr Swinney tried to defend the statistics after seeing the impact on pupils was “hardly believable”.

The Priestley report, which examined the failures of the 2020 exam results fiasco, was unable to access the datasets around the algorithm and further research into its impact is the only recommendation from the report not accepted in full by the Scottish Government.

The SQA maintain they hold “no regret” in respect of the moderation approach used.

For the first time since exam results were announced, the scale of the impact of what pupils labelled a postcode lottery can be outlined.

Students staged protests over exam downgrading in Glasgow (Pic: John Devlin)

Of more than 122,000 learners, 22,716 students would have seen two grades marked down by what the Priestley report labelled an “arbitrary” system.

Another 8,594 pupils would have seen three or more of their grades lowered, with 2,219 being hit by the disappointment of four of their grades being lowered.

Scottish Labour labelled the fact 408 pupils faced five grades or more being lowered “astonishing”.

Overall, 75,000 would have seen at least one grade downgraded by the SQA.

John Swinney, the education secretary, survived a vote of no confidence on the issue.

Both the Scottish Government and the SQA were criticised in the Priestley report for ‘over-focusing’ on the narrowing of the attainment gap rather than understanding the impact the moderation system had on individuals.

Scottish Conservatives education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “This latest revelation once again confirms how the SNP shambolically handled this year’s exams.

“The fact that over 400 students would have had this many grades downgraded is outrageous. For a party which proclaims to be champion of every part of Scotland, they knowingly failed those from our most deprived communities.

“John Swinney has failed to offer any certainty how or if next year’s moderation of results by the SQA will be any different or any fairer to young people.”

Scottish Green education spokesperson Ross Greer said it was “no wonder” the Scottish Government refused to hand over details of the algorithm ahead of results day.

He said: “These figures confirm everything I spent months warning the SQA and John Swinney about before results day.

"A system actually designed to get the right outcome for each individual would have immediately red-flagged five of their grades being lowered, giving the SQA weeks to fix the problem before results were issued.

"It’s no wonder they refused to hand over details of their algorithm before results day, despite my repeated attempts and two formal requests from Parliament.

“Fortunately, the Greens were able to negotiate a solution which restored the grades of all 75,000 affected pupils, as well as secure an independent review into how this happened. That review has published its scathing conclusions, so there is absolutely no excuse for a repeat of this shambles.”

The new figures come in the same week Mr Swinney cancelled National 5s while maintaining that Higher and Advanced Highers will go ahead unless public health advice requires them to be cancelled.

Responding to the scale of the downgrades which would have faced students without a U-turn from the Scottish Government, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson Iain Gray said the fact the education secretary required a vote of no-confidence to acknowledge the issues with the 2020 exams was “unforgivable”.

Mr Gray said: “The idea that John Swinney saw this scale of downgrading of awards in advance and did not understand the injustice about to be done to thousands of young people is astonishing.

“That he knew 400 pupils were about to receive five downgraded awards, and his response was to try and argue that this was fair, is hardly believable.

“That it took pupil protests and a vote of no-confidence to make him even acknowledge the problem is unforgiveable.

"No wonder the Priestley report into this fiasco, published this week, is so damning.

"No-one can have any confidence now in John Swinney’s stewardship of education.”

In a letter to the deputy First Minister also sent by Labour today, Mr Gray demanded further clarity on National 5s as well as the involvement of the Children’s Commissioner in any review into the appeals system.

Mr Gray said: “We cannot risk a repeat of the catastrophic SQA results fiasco next year.

“We simply cannot afford to gamble with the future of our young people or allow the scandal of this summer to be repeated. It is time for John Swinney to take action over these concerns and get Scotland’s education system back on track.”

A spokesperson for the SQA said: “Following the cancellation of the 2020 exams, the SQA was commissioned by the Scottish Government to develop an alternative certification model, based on teacher and lecturer estimates, to maintain standards over time.

“This involved some moderation of estimates. However, almost three quarters of estimates were unchanged.

"Following the Ministerial direction issued to SQA on 11 August, the results generated by this approach have been replaced by these estimates.

“The Deputy First Minister has set out the measures for the delivery of qualifications in the 2020/21 session and SQA is now focused on taking that work forward.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Once it became clear that the downgraded awards risked young people, particularly from working-class backgrounds, losing faith in education, the deputy First Minister instructed all downgraded awards to be withdrawn and new awards issued based on teacher or lecturer judgement.”

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