Unions call on rest of UK to follow Scotland’s lead on exam results U-turn

Education unions have called on the rest of the UK to follow Scotland’s lead in scrapping moderated exam grades after the downgrading of more than 124,000 results was reversed.

In a U-turn announced on Tuesday, Scotland’s Education Secretary John Swinney revealed that lowered marks would be reverted back to teachers’ estimates.

Mr Swinney apologised to pupils affected by the downgrading of 124,564 results.

The National Union of Students (NUS) said the UK Government should also scrap moderated grades.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Parliament during Education Secretary John Swinney’s ministerial statement on SQA exam results to MSPs
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Parliament during Education Secretary John Swinney’s ministerial statement on SQA exam results to MSPs

Larissa Kennedy, NUS president, said: “The Scottish Government have taken decisive action to respond to this situation, which must now be reflected across the UK.

“Students have worked incredibly hard throughout their education, and their efforts should be recognised.

“Now should be a time to celebrate their achievements rather than place a limit on their potential.”

She added: “In these unprecedented circumstances, the UK Government should follow the lead of Scotland by scrapping moderated grades.

“This temporary measure must be taken to avoid a situation in which thousands of students do not receive the grades they deserve because of where they live.”

The cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic had led to a new grading system being put in place, with teachers’ grade estimates for pupils being moderated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

This was based on criteria including the past performance of schools and resulted in the pass rate for Higher pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland being reduced by a greater percentage than those from the most affluent parts of the country.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said the rest of the UK should ensure that no student “misses out” due to “a flawed system of awarding marks”.

She argued students deserved better than the “mess” in Scotland, adding that the U-turn and apology from Mr Swinney was welcome.

Ms Grady said: “Allowing algorithms to downgrade marks and hold students back was wrong.

“Many students’ life chances could still be damaged because of a clearly faulty system.”

Mary Senior, UCU’s Scotland official, said: “This belated U-turn is welcome news for the thousands of Scottish students who could have missed out due to the farce around the results last week.

“Equally welcome is the commitment to create additional places in Scotland’s universities and colleges.

“It’s vital that these additional places are fully funded so students are well supported to progress their studies.”

The National Education Union (NEU) warned that competition for university places among English students is likely to “intensify” following Scotland’s decision.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “We now have two qualification systems required for entry into UK universities, operating on completely different criteria with wildly different pass rates.

“This can only increase the worries that students in England have about the fairness of the grades they will receive on Thursday.

“It will also intensify the competition with English students for university places.”

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said authorities in the rest of the UK will feel “pressure” to follow Scotland’s lead in reverting downgraded results to teachers’ estimates.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said: “There are good reasons for standardisation because it means this year’s grades are kept roughly in line with other years so that there is fairness to students over time.

“But there is clearly a tension when this leads to a situation where centre-assessed grades which were submitted in good faith by schools and colleges are then pulled down because of a statistical model, particularly if this detrimentally impacts on disadvantaged students.”

He added: “The decision in Scotland will put pressure on authorities in the other home nations to follow suit, and we will have to see how this plays out.”