Pupils offered hope in fight against exam downgrades

Nicola Sturgeon has offered hope to schoolchildren with downgraded exam results by revealing that the background of schools will not be a factor in assessing appeals.

Students at Lourdes Secondary School receive their exam results by text

The First Minister also said that as a pupil she would “very possibly” have joined young Scots protesting outside the Glasgow offices of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) today over the grades awarded this year.

SQA boss Fiona Robertson has been called to appear before MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee next week to explain the situation which saw 120,000 students have their grades for Highers and Nationals lowered this week.

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All qualifications were based on estimates this year because the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of exams. Thousands of parents and pupils have now signed a petition condemning the “moderation” process. They claim the system used by the SQA, which partly took into account schools’ results from previous years, meant youngsters from more deprived areas lost out disproportionately.

Ms Sturgeon’s former school, Greenwood Academy in Irvine, sits below the national average for attainment and the SNP leader was asked if this may have prompted her ­younger self to join today’s protests if she was penalised under the same system.

She said: “Very possibly. If you’re a young person whose teacher has estimated one grade and got a lower grade, you’re going to feel aggrieved about that and I absolutely understand that.

“If I had been in that position I would feel aggrieved about that. I know how really horrible this will be for young people in this position. And if I was standing here and saying ‘well tough, that’s it, just accept it’ then that anger would quite rightly be even greater.

“But I’m not saying that. There is another part of this process. You can appeal this and have your individual circumstances looked at.”

Ms Sturgeon insisted the appeals process will be based “solely on a candidate’s individual merit” – with the historic performance of schools not taken into account.

She said: “Schools and colleges are being encouraged to submit a wide range of alternative evidence, so not simply a prelim result or class test, although that is important evidence, but anything they think is relevant to the individual’s own assessment and performance. But that’s an important point, appeals will be based on the candidate’s individual merit and that is the individual part of this process.

“The first part, yes, had a statistical methodology attached to moderation. In this part of the process, it’s very much about making sure that any individual cases of genuine unfairness can rectified and that’s why I would encourage all the young people who feel that they’ve not had fair results to go through this appeal process and talk to their school and college about it as quickly as possible.”

The First Minister suggested that whatever method was used this year to determine results would have resulted in controversy.

“Because of the pandemic, everything has been turned upside-down,” she added.

“We had to put in place a different way of assessing young peoples’ performance. While I absolutely understand that concerns about the system that has been used, I think whatever system had been used to do this, to substitute for exams would have led some people to think it wasn’t fair.”

Newly-elected Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross called for pupils to be allowed to choose between taking their existing results, sit exams this coming autumn or receiving their prelim grades.

He added that students waiting for clarity on results to take up university offers should be prioritised so they are not held back any longer.

“Pupils, parents and teachers have contacted me to say they feel let down by what has happened and the lack of solutions that have been proposed,” Mr Ross said.

“In light of the exceptional circumstances of the last academic year, it is only fair that pupils are given every single chance to succeed.

“We should allow pupils far more flexibility and give all pupils – no matter their background – every opportunity to get the grades they deserve.

“Pupils have already earned their prelim grades and if they are determined enough to want to sit the exam later this year, they should be encouraged to do so in order to give themselves the best possible future, with those waiting on university places receiving first priority.

“The futures of an entire year group of young Scots are in the balance. It’s not just their exam results that have been downgraded, but their life chances. That cannot be allowed to stand.”

The Tories also hit out at Education Secretary John Swinney being given responsibility for handling the current coronavirus outbreak in Aberdeen as the row over this year’s grades continues to unfold.

Education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “John Swinney’s full focus must be on urgently fixing this mess. “The Aberdeen lockdown clearly requires the SNP Government’s attention but that cannot come at the expense of pupils who have been so badly failed.

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