SQA Results: How Scotland’s Poorest Pupils Were Left Behind

The SQA moderated pupils’ grades to protect their own credibility, but the reduced grades have hit students from deprived backgrounds the hardest.

Getting any exam result is a daunting and anxious moment in any young person’s life, whether it be at GCSE or A-level, or the Scottish equivalents of Nat-5’s, Highers or Advanced Highers. Every August students discover the grade that will significantly influence their choices in life over the next 5 years. Today was that day in Scotland, but for over 125,000 students, the results have been met with disappointment and dismay. 

Due to the nature of the Coronavirus pandemic, all exams in May were cancelled from the first GCSE exam, right up to university honours; no one sat in an exam hall for the first time since before the First World War. Due to the unprecedented nature of this, it was decided that grades would be decided by teachers rather than through examinations. At first, this seemed to be a resolute strategy because teachers know their students best and would consider their class work, coursework, and overall attitude. 

However, today as the exam results were unveiled over 125,000 pupils out of 140,000 who sat exams across all age brackets in Scotland discovered that their grades had been lowered. Most troubling was that it was those from the most deprived and disadvantaged groups suffered the hardest. The estimate from teachers from this group was an 85.1% pass rate, however after moderation by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) this was reduced down to 69.9%, a 15.2% decrease in attainment. There were decreases across the board, with the students from least deprived areas receiving an estimate of 91.5% which was then reduced to 84.6%, a 6.9% decrease. 

The Scottish Qualification Agency said they reduced the grades of pupils to maintain their credibility as an exam regulatory body. They argued that the estimate was too high, and the revised figures show a better fit to the trend of the previous 5 years. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon backed them up on this by stating in her daily press briefing that “If the system of moderation wasn’t in place I’d be saying that 85% of our most deprived young people would have passed Highers (GCSE-A-Level equivalents) compared to 65% in the previous year.” She then went on to argue that credibility would have been damaged if that 20% increase had been the case. 

Although the attainment level is still higher this year than the previous year (69.9%-65.3%), if SQA wanted to follow the trend in Scotland then they would have had to decrease exam results further for the most deprived areas and for the most affluent areas. This is because from 2016-2019 attainment levels for both have been on the decrease. In 2016 for the most deprived areas 68.6% passed Highers compared to 65.3% in 2019. The same can be said for the most affluent areas whereby 83.2% in 2016 achieved A-C compared to 81.7% last year. 

So the question then comes down to both the credibility of the SQA and the teachers within the Scottish education system. Either one or both has done something wrong for students, whether teachers acted on favouritism for the more deprived students or they genuinely feel that there has been a change in attitudes and many fully deserved their grades. In terms of the SQA are they showing favouritism to the more affluent areas and shrugging their shoulders to the more deprived students. Some students have said that they have dropped down 2 grades from A’s to C’s due to the system SQA adopted which considers performances of the school rather than the individual pupil. 

With GCSE results a week away and A-Level results the following may students are rightfully anxious and angry with exam authorities if this is the model that they follow. In Scotland there are fears of the exam appeal system being overrun with hundreds to thousands of students already preparing to appeal. One thing is for sure, due to either incompetence from SQA or the teachers it is always the pupils who suffer and are constantly left out of the loop and those from the poorest backgrounds as shown today, suffer the most. 

Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The SQA moderated pupils’ grades to protect their own credibility, but the reduced grades have hit students from deprived backgrounds the hardest.