The Scottish government has U-turned on its decision to downgrade thousands of students’ exam results. Instead, pupils in Scotland who had their grades lowered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) will be able to rely on teacher assessments of their results, the Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney has announced.
The U-turn comes after Nicola Sturgeon was forced into a humiliating apology yesterday for her administration’s handling of the exam results fiasco, which saw pupils in Scotland’s most deprived areas have their pass rate downgraded by more than students in wealthier areas. According to the Scottish children’s commissioner, grades had been lowered by taking into account the historic performance of a child’s school – a policy that seemed to unfairly punish those in poor-performing schools who were doing unexpectedly well.
Around 125,000 Scottish students will now have their grades reviewed, and the national pass rate in Scotland will increase to levels dismissed by Nicola Sturgeon as ‘not credible’ last week.
The U-turn marks a rare political black eye for Sturgeon, who has so far managed to avoid the many criticisms levelled at Boris Johnson during the pandemic, despite the catastrophic management of the disease in Scotland’s care homes. Sturgeon is now facing calls for her education minister to resign, and has incurred the wrath of a substantial bloc of parents and pupils.
Meanwhile, UK government ministers watching Scotland’s exam results drama unfold over the past week may be enjoying the sight of Sturgeon’s discomfort, but they also will be nervously eyeing up A level results day in England on Thursday. Already, the head of Ofqual has warned that relying only on teacher assessments for pupils’ grades would create ‘perpetual unfairness’ and both exam boards and the regulator will use schools’ previous results to calculate final grades.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has so far defended the English system for calculating grades this year as ‘fundamentally a fair one’ and his department has urged universities to be as flexible as possible if students appeal their grades, with some students hopefully allowed to take up places in the autumn term if their grades approve on appeal.
But as in Scotland, it seems inevitable that many students will be disappointed come results day on Thursday, and will have been robbed of the opportunity to improve their grades through exams. The question for Gavin Williamson is whether the system is seen as a fair but harsh assessment of a minority of students or is perceived to be unfairly targeting students in the most deprived areas of the country. If it’s the latter, it’s only a matter of time before Williamson is put through the wringer like Sturgeon.