‘[W]e can today celebrate the achievements of all learners. Young people have received awards that recognise their hard work and allow them to move onto the next stage in their lives.’ – John Swinney (4th August 2020)
‘[W]e did did not get it right for every young person and I want to apologise for that’ – John Swinney (4th August 2020)
On Tuesday 4th August 2020, Left Ungagged published my piece on the scandal that has been the handling of student results during the current pandemic (see How To Perpetuate Social Inequalities – An SQA And Scottish Government Guide). In the article, I argued that the choice to award grades based on previous school performances (affecting some 124,565 grades) was akin to postcode prejudice and ran counter to the SNP’s consistent message of aiming to close the educational attainment gap during their time in parliament. Following mass public outcry, the Scottish Government have now reversed that decision and will instead award grades based on teacher estimates – itself still a complex situation. Whilst the previous article noted that the one-off exam is already a deeply problematic approach to assessing any student’s abilities (generally a test of banked education rather than critical application), this follow-up essay specifically addresses the decision to backtrack over the awarded grades.
Though the SNP have cited closing that attainment gap as a core priority (Nicola Sturgeon even asking voters to judge her on her education record back in 2015), last week’s decision flew in the face of this. Despite these promises, students attending schools within the most deprived areas of Scotland faced results 15.2% lower than their teacher estimated (e.g. dropping from a predicted overall 85.% pass rate in Highers to just 69.9%). E.S.R.C. Researcher Barry Black had stated 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 peers’, with adult learners enduring a 13% drop from an estimated pass rate of 83.9% to just 70.9%.
This decision led to demonstrations in Glasgow’s George Square (pictured below) and the response – largely led by teenage students – has been successful in demanding change. Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education & Skills John Swinney has now announced that all students who had their grades lowered will instead be awarded their teacher’s estimation wherever this result is higher than their initial award. I do want to stress momentarily, however, that almost all discussions during this fiasco have failed to acknowledge mature learners and I would therefore encourage readers to take these people into account during future discussions on education. One exception to this was, however, Swinney’s quotes in The Scotsman which stated that ‘he would direct the SQA to reissue the awards “based solely on teacher or lecturer judgements”’ – lecturers being based primarily in the colleges in this instance.
Previously, I argued that ‘basing grades […] 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’. This concern still stands and I could readily share several accounts of my own experiences and those of others like me who were repeatedly deterred in our ambitions by teachers who either didn’t share our self-belief or didn’t trust us to knuckle down in the run up to the final assessments – a fairly common situation often considered some for of ‘wake up call’ after these rehearsal results are announced. Many such students will still have had these teacher estimates place them lower than they believed their own work could have achieved during the final exam and, unfortunately, this leaves some learners in limbo – unable to take any action or demonstrate that they could earned the grades required for progression towards their desired training, learning, or employment opportunities (‘positive destinations’, as the government would call them).
In sharing last week’s article to a number of community development social media forums, I was quite shocked by the reaction in one specific Facebook Group for Scottish youth workers within which several commenters responded by downplaying the significance of the Scottish Government decision, leaping to defend the SNP, and dismissing the concerns over how the postcode-based approach disproportionately harmed students from working class, black and other minority ethnic backgrounds, and those from migrant families.
This came despite Swinney’s later concession that ‘we now accept that concern [over issuing ‘inflated results] is outweighed by the concern that young people, particularly from working class backgrounds, may lose faith in education and form the view that no matter how hard you work, the system is against you’. Scottish politics – even within fields dedicated to working towards greater fairness and social equality – I feel, still have a long way to go until notions of justice, inequality, and intersectionality extend beyond their all too often surface level chat and rhetoric. Ultimately, we’re left with two questions: (i) Do we accept Swinney’s apology?; and given the mishandling of the entire situation (ii) What does accountability look like in this situation? Ditching the appeals process for this year – which, as I noted last week, favours ‘students from more affluent, ‘stable’ or nuclear families […] 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’ – was the right call.
However, whilst the Scottish Government, the SNP, and Swinney issued their apologies and committed to taking action to correct their harmful choices towards those in poor and working class communities, it remains the case that an entire week was spent defending the previous decision knowing full well the impact it would have. Indeed, despite the choice to now ‘correct’ grades, both Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney had argued that the results this week awarded to students had not previously been issued as to do so would ‘not have been credible’. It should also be emphasised that the SQA are not innocent in this, with Fiona Robertson having previously rejected any suggestion that the moderation system was unfair in any sense.
Even with the change, one which is to be welcomed for the improved position it placed working class students into, it was never going to be the case that the SQA would be instructed to strip back the upgraded results students in affluent areas benefited from, yet this itself has protected students attending middle class schools.
Perhaps going forward we should start to address the migration of teachers towards ‘the best schools’ where their work life becomes easier, or at least where different problems are faced, but the situation we’re in now has failed to reduce the attainment gap in a way that accepting teacher estimates from the onset would have done. Arguably, therefore, given last week’s decision, returning these estimates within working class areas is perhaps the most realistic outcome we could’ve hoped for. The aforementioned Barry Black recognised this, stating that ‘[t]his whole process has been one of great uncertainty and could have been avoided from the start had the SQA and Scottish Government listened to the warnings from early as April. The changes announced today would not make for an ideal alternative assessment model if they were planned from the start, but are fairer than the methodology that was used and will be of huge relief to the impacted young people.’
Taking a degree of responsibility for this, Swinney has indicated that the Scottish Government will seek to make amends for the situation they caused by ensuring that an increased number of university and colleges places are made available for those whose applications have been affected:
‘Many of those young people will already have moved on to secure college or university places on the strength of the awards made to them. To unpick them now would not in any way be fair. Finally, due to the unique circumstances of this situation, we will this year make provision for enough places in universities and colleges to ensure that no one is crowded out of a place they would otherwise have been awarded.’
But what of accountability? Even with this scandal, the fact of the matter remains that the bulk of SNP supporters will vote to return the party once again in 2021 as their support is tied to a longer term goal, that of succession from the U.K. Many voters (though certainly not exclusively within the SNP) are adamant that Scottish independence is the solution to all social and economic problems (*spoiler alert*: it’s not) and, consequently, few will sacrifice their support for the SNP who remain, for the foreseeable future, the only party in any position to secure another independence referendum – whenever that may be. Yet, even with that, how many scandals and how much backtracking can supporters of any one party – especially one attesting to be as broad a church as the SNP endure? Further, who are the credible alternatives?
The Liberal Democrats should never be forgiven for facilitating a decade of social cuts, welfare reform, and broader austerity by propping up a Tory-led U.K. Government – though we must remember Labour began this process following the global economic recession. Scottish Labour have abandoned many working class Scots as they further entrench themselves in the political centre and the U.K. Labour Party more generally have such constant infighting that any credible leftist candidates often face as much criticism from within their own party as they do from rival politicians and corporate media. The Scottish Socialist Party, likely along with the Scottish Greens, will only stand a chance of winning seats through the regional list system, whilst the array of new parties emerging around the ‘Yes Alliance’ (as well as the counter movements) have brought the resurfacing of several questionable individuals within Scottish politics.
For now, Swinney faced a no confidence vote on Thursday 13th August 2020, tabled by the Scotish Labour Party, yet the Deputy First Minister was always unlikely to face any long term consequences – neither will his party. This was something I sought to address in late July 2020 in my article Queer Spaces: Opportunities & Threats, where I stressed that ‘even those SNP politicians who have shown themselves to be trans-exclusionary in their various forms of feminism […] will likely retain electoral support for what their party represents more broadly’. With the SNP currently predicted to return as many as 58% of seats come 2021, the best we can perhaps hope for is a hung parliament within which cross-party support becomes necessary, creating, in essence, a checks and balances system of accountability.
Such a return does, however, risk diluting any proposed radical policies and may impede sincere social progress, yet as we’ve witnessed over the last few years, the SNP have scaled back promises to bring meaningful change around the Gender Recognition Act, for example, so arguably radical change is unlikely anyway. What I do believe, however, is that the rapid rethink of the SNP’s approach to their handling of student grades over the last week has demonstrated that where significant social pressure occurs (in this instance primarily from senior high school students whom the SNP have supported in gaining the vote), there is room for a sincere form of accountability in parliament. Admittedly, this largely stems from parties desperately trying to point score over each other, however, going forward, it could be played for public advantage.
We on the politically inclusive left, however, must be ready to mobilise around any such opportunities as to continue talking exclusively amongst ourselves risks falling behind others ready to advocate for an exclusionary and dangerous form of politics. Electoral and parliamentary politics is only the beginning; the real work must be undertaken in our working class communities where we formulate clearer understandings of what constitutes justice.