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Scottish government hikes exam grades

11 August 2020

By Patrick Traynor, Newington Public Affairs

“I would love to be in the position of standing here credibly saying that 85% of the 20% in the most deprived areas had passed Higher. But given that it was 65% last year, that would raise a real credibility issue."  

These were the words of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week as she defended the decision by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to downgrade 125,000 estimated grades after a nationwide moderation process. 

Today saw a dramatic U-turn as Education Secretary John Swinney delivered a statement in Holyrood in which he apologised to all those affected, and announced that the original grades would stand.  Where students had their grades upgraded by moderation, they will be allowed to keep their upgraded grade.

For those not following this crisis, the U-turn has been forced after sustained pressure and genuine anger from parents and students across Scotland. The Scottish Government, like many others, has been struggling with the challenge of how to accurately assess students in the absence of exams due to Covid-19. In response it adopted a system which began with assessments made by teachers, which were then put through a nationwide moderation system. This is when the problems began, with the moderation system lowering the grades of 125,000 students, with the biggest impact falling on pupils in Scotland’s most deprived schools. 

This put the Scottish Government in an  difficult political position, fending off anger from disappointed students and questions about teachers’ judgement and impartiality on one side, and attempting to justify the moderation process it insisted was necessary to protect the credibility and integrity of the Scottish exam process: without it pass rates for all levels were up over 10% from the previous year.

Sturgeon and Swinney will hope today’s climbdown and apology will be enough to draw a line under the affair. In the short term, the debate will continue to rage over whether Swinney still has credibility in his post as Education Secretary. There are increasing calls from opposition parties for him to resign, including plans for a vote of no confidence, albeit one which would likely fall short without the support of the Scottish Green Party.  

Sturgeon will be reluctant to bow to this pressure and lose another influential member of her Government, having already lost high profile Finance Secretary Derek Mackay in February.  At the same time, the education sector continues to face significant challenges, none more pressing than the need to get all students back to classroom education school in September. These would be tough circumstances for any Education Secretary to deal with in normal times, but any failure on these issues will magnified as Swinney seeks to rebuild confidence and trust. 

With the fallout from today’s U-turn and those challenges to come, expect to see education become a major issue ahead of the Scottish Parliament election next May, and form a core part of opposition parties’ criticism of the SNP’s domestic record.