Scotland exams 2021: Covid blamed for widening of attainment gap between poorest and richest students

The qualifications authority has blamed disruption to learning caused by Covid-19 for the widening of the attainment gap following the publication of 2021’s exam results.

Following a year of controversy around the ‘alternative certification model’ that saw many pupils sit exams in all but name during a heavily disrupted school year, overall pass rates at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher are down when compared to 2020.

The attainment gap has also widened for the fourth year out of the past five, though the gap is narrower this year when compared to results prior to the pandemic due to the jump in pass rate caused by the U-turn around teacher estimates by John Swinney last August.

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The widening of the attainment gap has been blamed on Covid disruption.

Students have known their individual grades since the end of June, due to the use of an alternative grading model focused more heavily on teacher judgement than on the infamous algorithm ditched last year.

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville described the results as “strong”, adding they had been “achieved under extraordinary circumstances”.

Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) chief executive Fiona Robertson placed the blame on the widening of the attainment gap on the disruption to learners caused by the pandemic.

She said the model was “credible and fair” and called for “confidence” in the results received by learners.

Measured by the difference in percentage points between A-C pass rates across the most deprived and least deprived sections of Scotland, the attainment gap widened by 1.1 percentage points from 7.9 to nine.

Highers saw its gap widen from 6.5 points to 7.9, with Advanced Highers widening from three points to 5.5.

This year has also seen the widest attainment gap for those achieving A grades since 2017, with the gap widening to 22.1 percentage points.

This means for the poorest pupils in Scotland, 2021 was a tougher year to achieve an A grade than any recent year with normal exams.

There are also question marks as to whether this year’s assessment model has disproportionately impacted the poorest students in Scotland.

The overall A-C pass rate has dropped across the board when compared to 2020, but the decline is around twice as high among the poorest students when compared to the richest.

At Higher, the pass rate among those in areas with the highest deprivation has dropped by 2.5 percentage points compared to just a 1.1 percentage point drop for those in the areas of least deprivation.

The poorest pupils are also proportionately more likely to have failed, with the fail rate for the poorest increasing by 2.3 percentage points compared to 1.4 points for the richest.

Asked why the attainment gap had widened, the SQA said the disruption caused by Covid-19 was more likely to have impacted poorer students and could provide an explanation for the gap.

Ms Robertson said: "Learners have faced disruption to learning and teaching this year.

“The Scottish Government’s equity audit highlighted some of the challenges young people have faced that go beyond assessment.”

Ms Robertson said the SQA’s approach to qualifications saw additional flexibility when compared to previous years.

Responding to a question about the lack of an appeals route based on exceptional circumstances, Ms Robertson said the entire year was about exceptional circumstances, adding the alternative certification model had built in flexibilities that meant such a service was not required.

She added that around 300 pupils had taken advantage of the ‘incomplete evidence’ extension, which allowed pupils to sit exams or assessments had they missed them earlier in the year.

The SQA boss said a “small number” of several thousand pupils had also indicated they would appeal their grades to the authority.

Speaking as statistics were published, the chief executive said learners could now move on in life “with confidence” on the back of this year’s grades.

She said: “Everyone worked hard to ensure the model was credible and fair, so we can all have confidence in the certificates that have been awarded today. I want to thank everyone who has played their part, directly or indirectly, in delivering for learners this year in the most exceptional circumstances.”

Pointing at the widening of the attainment gap, Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Oliver Mundell criticised the Scottish Government’s approach to exams.

Calling for an apology from the government, he said it was “essential” to keep a “traditional exam system”, labelling this year’s approach as a “shambles” and a “disgrace”.

Mr Mundell said the widening of the attainment gap should “set alarm bells ringing” the system was “just as flawed and unfair” as in 2020.

He said: “The SNP should apologise for creating this shambolic, deeply unjust system that is marred by more of the same mistakes.

“They have misled and failed pupils on multiple fronts. The SNP promised no repeat of last year’s chaos where pupils were judged on their background, they promised no exams, and they promised that teachers’ judgement ‘alone’ would determine grades. Those promises have been broken.”

Reacting this morning, Ms Somerville said the year was one of the “toughest academic years we’ve ever known”.

She said: “These results are testament to the hard work, resilience and determination of learners – and to the dedication of their endlessly supportive teachers and lecturers, who have been with them every step of the way, going above and beyond to make sure pupils got the grades they deserve.

“Learners can be confident that their awards are fair, consistent and credible. Indeed, industry representatives have made it clear how much they value this year’s qualifications.

“As in any year, the results highlight some areas for us to focus attention on. Closing the poverty-related attainment gap and ensuring every young person has the chance to fulfil their potential remains central to our work.

"We know that the challenges presented by the pandemic mean our efforts to deliver equity in education are more vital than ever, so we are investing a further £1 billion over the course of this Parliament to help close the gap.”

An SQA spokesperson said: “Given the disruption to learning and teaching, and the very different approaches to assessment and grading over the last two years, comparisons need to be treated with caution and it is not possible to draw definitive conclusions on any changes in education performance.

“The pandemic dramatically affected everyone’s lives and had a disproportionate impact on those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, so this year’s alternative certification model gave schools, colleges and training providers flexibility around the timing and nature of assessment to ensure that, as far as possible, there was maximum opportunity for learners to undertake the required learning and be given the best chance to succeed in any course assessments.”

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