Students in Renfrewshire find out their results © Jeff Holmes JSHPIX/PA

Scottish secondary school pupils have had nearly a quarter of their results downgraded under a new marking system adopted after exams were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Results for National 5s, Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers released on Tuesday showed the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the regulator, had adjusted 133,000 entries, more than one quarter of all results, from the grades predicted by teachers. The vast majority, 93 per cent, were adjusted down.

The results expose concerns over the fairness of the system that replaced cancelled exams with predicted grades based on mock exams, coursework, and teacher assessment. These were then moderated by the SQA, based on the past performance of each school.

Some warn that the grades, which come the week before England and Wales publish A-level results calculated according to a similar system, could lead to a wave of appeals.

Jamie Greene, Scotland’s shadow education secretary, accused the SQA of “shambolic handling” and an “incoherent” grading methodology. He demanded transparency over “how many grades were adjusted to meet national average requirements”.

The pass rate for National 5s, which are broadly equivalent to GCSEs, rose to 81 per cent, compared to 78 per cent in 2019, while the pass rate for Highers, usually taken in the fifth year of secondary school, was 79 per cent, compared to 75 per cent last year. The pass rate for Advanced Highers, which are usually taken in the sixth year, was 85 per cent, up from 80 per cent last year.

Scotland’s deputy first minister and education secretary, John Swinney, said standardisation was necessary to maintain the credibility of the exam scores, and said that pupils disappointed with their grades could enter an appeals process if they provided evidence to support their predicted grade.

Mr Swinney added that if final grades had been based only on teacher assessment they would have increased nationwide by 14 percentage points for Highers and 10.4 percentage points for National 5s — an unprecedented annual change.

“This year has been exceptionally challenging but these robust processes mean we have upheld standards so that all learners can hold their heads up and move on to the next phase in their life, whether that be further study, employment or training,” he said in a statement.

But educators said the SQA’s standardisation process, which assessed teacher estimates based on school’s past performance, had serious deficiencies. The adjustments meant that the pass rate among the most deprived fifth of pupils fell by 15 percentage points compared to 7 percentage points among the wealthiest fifth. However, the overall pass rate for both groups rose compared to last year.

Barry Black, an education researcher at the University of Glasgow’s Urban Big Data Centre, said analysts had been “warning for months” that a standardisation process would mean students from schools with poor past attainment were more likely to be graded down.

Joel Meekison, a student who has been campaigning on the predicted grades system with student group SQA Where’s Our Say, said the discrepancies between grades would likely lead to a “huge number” of appeals.

“It means SQA has said they know these learners’ grades better than the teachers,” he said. He added that he expected a big jump in appeals, which authorities could struggle to process before students start university in the autumn.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, Scotland’s biggest teachers’ union, warned in the Times Education Supplement last weekend that if students were “at a loss” to understand their grades and felt that “justice has not been delivered . . . the system may well drown beneath an appeals tsunami”.

On Tuesday he said: “Schools will wish to examine in detail the impact of the SQA’s statistical modelling on their results and where there is disquiet, the evidence-based appeal system should be utilised . . . to ensure that all young people receive results that accurately reflect their achievements throughout the year.”

Get alerts on UK schools when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article