Democracy Education Equality & Inclusion Human Rights Scotland

How to Perpetuate Social Inequalities – An SQA and Scottish Government Guide

Today, learners who studied S.Q.A. National 5, Higher, and Advanced Higher courses during the 2019/2020 academic session received their grades. Yet, for the first time, these results are not down to how students performed in a final one-off exam (itself already a problematic approach), rather gradings are the result of predictions by teachers in high schools and colleges throughout Scotland based on partially taught programmes and an initial prelim exam with circa one-quarter of all results adjusted by the S.Q.A. (Scottish Government, 2020). Historically prelim exams, generally sat early in the second semester, have served as evidence to be used in any appeal cases when the outcomes of the final exams sat towards the summer are lower than expected. Given the expectations of students from more affluent, ‘stable’ or nuclear families, and who often boast English as their mother tongue tend to be higher achieving from the onset with many teachers more readily giving them predictions of A or B grades, this appeals system often affords a safety net for middle class students over the rest of us. The corresponding consequence being that for learners who needed more time to develop their understanding of subjects – essentially to just follow the curriculum at the pace it’s intended whilst developing their critical thinking skills and (where applicable) improving their language acquisition through longer exposure to culture and social life. Basing grades, in part, on teacher predictions could be incredibly harmful for the many students who develop through the sustained and, hopefully, trusting relationships built up over the academic year rather than readily having access to private tutors or familial relationships with schools (either through multiple children or intergenerational histories) – shattering any illusion of ‘fairness to all learners’ (a proclamation contained within the S.Q.A.’s National Qualification 2020 Awarding Methodology Report).

Deputy First Minister to the Scottish Parliament, John Swiney, had announced early on during lockdown that for the first time exams would be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Professor Lindsay Paterson (University of University) is amongst those to have publicly spoken out against this approach, stressing that the work produced by students during the latter stages of the courses – when understanding is often greater thanks to increased engagement with a subject – is now absent and thus cannot be used in any future appeal against the lowered grades received today. This critique comes in stark contrast to claims published from Swiney this morning that ‘we can today celebrate the achievement of all learners’, proclaiming that ‘[y]oung people have received awards that recognise their hard work and allow them to move onto the next stage in their lives’. With adjustments to grades also impacted by the average performance of a given school in previous years (2016-2019), institutes with an abundance of affluent students benefit from these past performances, whilst those in lower ranking schools (generally located in the areas of higher social and economic deprivation as indicated by the Scottish Index for Multiple Deprivation) are more likely to have had their predicted grades lower. Simultaneously this approach is set to perpetuate inequalities, rigging educational attainment by reducing the grades of working class students suggesting a lack of trust in the educators based across Scottish schools and colleges offering S.Q.A. courses, therein reproducing harmful stereotypes of low educational attainment in working class areas. 


Evidence released this morning indicates that students within the most deprived areas of Scotland (lowest ranked 20% according to the S.I.M.D) had their estimated grades lowered by 15.2%, dropping from a predicted 85.% pass rate in Highers to just 69.9%. Barry Block (E.S.R.C. Researcher), noted that the ‘[p]oorest young people [were] downgraded from a pass to a fail at Higher at over twice the rate of their most affluent poors’. Similarly, adult learners sitting their S.Q.A. exams (many of whom are re-entering education later in life following negative school experiences in their youth) faced a 13% going from an estimated pass rate of 83.9% to an allocated pass rate of just 70.9%. ‘This year’s results will be based on estimates from their teachers.’ In my own experience, during my Fifth Year at high school, my teacher told me I was being ‘unrealistic’ and ‘over ambitious’ to aim for anything above a C in Higher English. That summer I got an A in the top 5% across the country. Exam-based results are accepted by many as less than ideal already, but even in educational institutions such as many university programmes where grades are now the aggregated score from across several assignments combined with an exam, the latter stage still carries significant weight. The legacy of these decisions will impact many students for decades to come and it will be most harmful for students facing additional barriers to academic success. Several recent studies have demonstrated the failures of educational institutes to support students for whom English is an additional language, with my friend and colleague Nicola Hay’s recently submitted Ph.D. at the University of the West of Scotland highlighting the shocking failures within schools to adequately support Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller children in their studies. One particular Scottish school, she found, relies on a volunteer to provide language support one afternoon a week which, in essence, abandons these children for the rest of their school week. 


There is, of course, the further issue of the extended workloads now placed on teachers following the 133,000 adjustments made ‘from the initial estimate’ based on the S.Q.A.’s predicted grading which will bring demands of appeals from young people and their parents, as well as mature students, however, once again this will likely favour middle class students attending the historically ‘higher performing schools’. The Scottish Government announced today that of these adjustments which has seen approximately 2% of all grades be increased versus around 23% which were lowered which suggests a particularly aggressive approach that punishes many students who were unable to work towards their achieving their own grades. Even in cases where appeals will be submitted to support young folk transitioning to work, higher and further education, or other training opportunities, the immediacy of the grades as announced today are far from insignificant. Many parents, high school graduates, and college attendees are currently advising on Twitter that the downgraded results they’ve received mean they don’t meet the minimum criteria for conditional offers at their ideal ‘destinations’. Though praise has been issued by some towards the S.Q.A. for the increased ‘pass’ rate for National 5 exams, Highers, and Advanced Highers compared to the 2019 results, the figures released thus far do not provide a breakdown of grades within the pass bracket. Though appeals may eventually correct some of this, the anxiety imposed and the loss of opportunities over the coming days and weeks brings long term repercussions. 

It seems that the Scottish Government and the S.Q.A. were fully aware of the extent to which their chosen approach would let students down. Swiney advised that ‘[t]he appeals process is an integral part of awarding this year, and will play an important role in giving schools and colleges the opportunity to present evidence in support of teacher and lecturer estimates’, yet appeals take time and opportunities don’t remain open forever. That the appeal process is free of charge this year further indicates predicted failure, inaccuracies, and the perpetuated low attainment of working class students. My request to employers and educational institutes with the power to withdraw conditional offers is, therefore, that you be understanding and sympathetic in this current context of a global pandemic and the withdrawal of the space for students to achieve their own grades through their commitment, graft, and personal development rather than being based on the areas in which they live and the schools they attend. If you felt confident enough in applications to issue conditional offers, bear this in mind as you decide whether to strip away these opportunities – despite what Swiney claims is cause for celebration, the results received today are far from a true reflection of where many students would have ended up when sitting their end of year exams. The Scottish Government and the S.Q.A. have failed a great many of our students (young and mature) across our high schools and colleges, and caused particular harm for poor, working class, and non-native English speakers. Please don’t follow suit and risk further damaging life, career, and learning prospects.






By Luke Campbell

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