What does the Scottish Government’s U-turn on exam results mean for pupils?

Pupils whose results were downgraded after moderation will have their marks changed after backlash prompted the Scottish Government into a U-turn.

But how will the new system work, when will pupils find out the new results and what are the implications for universities and colleges?

– What happened with this year’s exams?

With Scotland’s schools being closed near the start of the coronavirus pandemic, all exams were cancelled for the first time.

In response, the Scottish Government approved a new grading system created by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) that required teachers to provide estimates for each pupil in all their subjects, with evidence to support their decisions.

– How did pupils do?

The results announced last Tuesday – after SQA moderation but before the government u-turn – meant the National 5 pass rate was 81.1%, the Higher pass rate was 78.9% and the Advanced Higher pass rate was 84.9%.

They rose at every level compared with the previous year, from 78.2%, 74.8% and 79.4% respectively.

– Why was there anger at this year’s results?

The methodology and equality impact assessments of the new system were shrouded in mystery and only revealed last Tuesday, despite repeated calls from Holyrood’s education committee for the SQA to release the information.

Once the methodology was published on results day, it was revealed that 26.2% of all entries had been changed from teachers’ estimates during moderation.

A total of 124,564 grades had been downgraded — 93.1% of all the moderated results – based on criteria that included schools’ past performances.

Furthermore, the system disproportionately downgraded pupils from poorer backgrounds. The pass rate for Higher pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland was reduced by 15.2%, compared with 6.9% in the most affluent parts of the country.

– What did the Government say about the system?

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Education Secretary John Swinney repeatedly defended the process.

They argued that to accept teachers’ estimates would have created unprecedented grade inflation and would not have been “credible”.

Education Secretary, John Swinney gives a statement on SQA exam results at the Scottish Parliament, watched by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Education Secretary, John Swinney gives a statement on SQA exam results at the Scottish Parliament, watched by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

– Why did they change their mind?

Mr Swinney said the backlash from angry pupils and parents at the methodology that disproportionately affected pupils from deprived backgrounds “outweighed” the Scottish Government’s desire to suppress grade inflation.

He added: “We now accept that concern, which is not without foundation, is outweighed by the concern that young people, particularly from working-class backgrounds, may lose faith in the education system and form the view that no matter how hard you work, the system is against you.”

– What will happen now?

Pupils whose results were downgraded will instead get the grades their teacher had estimated, Mr Swinney announced on Tuesday.

“I can confirm to Parliament today that all downgraded awards will be withdrawn,” he told the Scottish Parliament, adding they would instead be “based solely on teacher or lecturer judgment”.

– When will pupils find out their new grades?

Mr Swinney said: “Schools will be able to confirm the estimates they provided for pupils to those that are returning to school this week and next.

“The SQA will issue fresh certificates to affected candidates as soon as possible and, importantly, will inform UCAS and other admission bodies of the new grades as soon as practical in the coming days to allow for applications to college and university to be progressed.”