Scottish exams 2021: Another year, another failure to tackle the attainment gap

This year’s exam results have shown the SNP has still failed to get serious when it comes to narrowing the attainment gap.

Figures released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) show when compared to 2020 the attainment gap has widened, albeit to a much smaller gap than pre-Covid.

However, at a briefing the qualifications authority was at pains to state that comparing this year with previous required significant caveats, essentially saying it was incomparable.

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Scotland exams 2021: Covid blamed for widening of attainment gap between poorest...
The attainment gap has widened in Scotland again.The attainment gap has widened in Scotland again.
The attainment gap has widened in Scotland again.

Fiona Robertson, the quango’s chief executive, also blamed the attainment gap on the disruption to schooling caused by Covid-19, something the Scottish Government established had disproportionately affected the poorest students.

As many opposition politicians and activists pointed out, the ‘alternative certification model’ was designed in a way that made a drop in overall attainment inevitable, given estimated results were being compared with pre-Covid years as part of ‘quality assurance’.

The rationale behind the inclusion of ‘demonstrated attainment’, which in reality resulted in pupils sitting exams in all but name, suggests the SNP is wedded to traditional assessment techniques.

Results prior to Covid-19 indicate one of two possibilities. Either teachers and schools have been failing to adequately prepare Scotland’s most deprived pupils for standardised exams for years, or the education system in Scotland is stacked against those from the poorest parts of the country.

Both 2020 and 2021, ostensibly years in which the attainment gap has been at its narrowest, has seen a focus on teacher judgement.

Last year this change in emphasis proved too much for the SQA and John Swinney, and blanket moderation was applied to ‘retain credibility’.

In 2021, the requirement for assessments shifted the goalposts closer to normal exams, and with it the attainment gap widened.

Next year students will likely see a return to traditional exams and a wider attainment gap, all in the desire to preserve credibility in the system.

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With the upcoming reform of the SQA and Education Scotland, the SNP has a chance to provide a platform that radically overhauls assessment in a way that allows those from the poorest backgrounds to demonstrate they have the same ability as those from richer backgrounds.

The question for Shirley-Anne Somerville as education secretary is whether she prefers preservation or progression.

Only then will we see if the SNP is serious about narrowing the attainment gap.

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