Has the Scottish Government Failed Its Exams?


As with all things Covid-related it’s best to step back and consider what is reasonable.  Many things had to be decided in a hurry, in a situation that was more or less unprecedented; some things, inevitably were a hash. Take the furlough scheme – a real lifeline for millions of people, thought up and delivered really quickly, but was it really meant to provide income for employees of FTSE 100 companies, the bosses of which are still paying themselves millions?

So if you examine the fiery cauldron of the 2020 SQA exam results, what’s it reasonable to find in the flames? Historians may argue in the future, but very probably it was right to cancel the 2020 exam diet, and that was done very swiftly indeed, affording plenty of time to decide by what mechanisms all these young Scots in S4, S5 and S6, who had been variously studying away assiduously or editing their Instagram profiles, were to be assessed. And now, with the results out, almost everybody is angry. Here’s why.

To begin with, there’s been a lack of transparency about the whole process. I still don’t completely understand by what Masonic process these results were worked out, and it would have been so much fairer to teachers and parents and most importantly to our young exam candidates if, at the outset, there had been public awareness of what the process would be. Otherwise it looks like the SQA, and, by extension the government, has made it up as they were going along.

Teachers were asked to give an estimate of the outcome in each subject for each pupil, and I have no doubt whatsoever that they took this responsibility very seriously indeed, taking into account whatever materials were at their disposal. That work was, I imagine, moderated by colleagues within departments so that the outcomes, the actual estimated grades sent to the SQA, were arrived at as objectively as possible. Still, all teachers have been there. We have hoped beyond hope that that hard-working, kind, happy child who sits in the class and strains every sinew will pass, even when it looks unlikely: these are people in three dimensions with names and families, and many of them do their best at school against really difficult odds. Teachers, remember, like young people; they are there to try to facilitate their dreams, not simply look at them as items to place on a Bell Curve. I can’t imagine that I am alone in having cried over individual exam results, both good and bad. Given that, is it really a surprise that had the SQA just accepted every result estimated by teachers, the Higher pass rate would have gone from 79% in the real exams of 2019 to 89% this year? Can we blame teachers for giving their students, sitting in their classrooms, day after day, the benefit of the doubt, particularly when, of course, these same students have been deprived of so much teaching in the final stages of their courses? Still, sigh, you really can’t have the exam results soaring like that and maintain national and international credibility in your exam system.

So, of course, what you have to do is one of two things. One possibility is to look at the work of every pupil in every subject independently – now that, of course, is a huge task, dependent on the labour and expertise of teachers who have already doubled down to create estimates for their own pupils; and it would be hugely costly. Remember, though, that there were no exam scripts to be marked and thus banks of professional and qualified markers to employ. Or at worst, you look at a significant sample of work from each subject in each school and using the orders of merit submitted by schools, adjust if and when necessary.

What you don’t do is look at schools’ results in the past. That’s a horror show, and it’s a bizarre thing for the government to have allowed when their flagship policy is to really push for improvement in Scotland’s most deprived schools, some of which – with the aid of Pupil Equity Funding – have been taking real steps forward. Where is the individual student in all this? The aspirational child from an impoverished background who wants to shine, but whose results are pulled down by a statistical process based on the performance of other children in earlier years? What does this process say to young people, their parents and their teachers? It says, what goes around comes around, year on year. And teachers know that, even in normal times, that just isn’t so – it’s not at all unusual for one S5 group in a school to do markedly worse or better than its predecessor.

So, what’s left? Schools can appeal, apparently without charge, if a result has been downgraded and there are 125 thousand such results; I can only imagine that at least 80% will be appealed.  Who’s going to do that? Well, of course, the very people who should have been looking at the work on behalf of the SQA in the first place, the teachers, a profession which once again feels deflated and angry. Good luck in recruiting all the extra staff necessary, just as schools are about to recommence after this sad and difficult time. My goodness, why didn’t all these people, some of whom were at one time teachers themselves, seconded to the Scottish educational establishment see this coming, and sort out a way to deal with it that preserved equity and fairness but saw each student as an individual?

Mr Swinney, whatever is going to happen, don’t cancel the 2021 exams.




  1. Thanks for this insight. It feels inevitable that the credibility of this year’s results will be in doubt – those happy with their grades will not appeal, and no doubt there are some who have scored better than they would in the exams. Those unhappy will appeal, some successfully, and this will push the overall passmarks to record levels anyway, but after a lot of stress, heartache and hard work.


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