Scotland exams: Private school pupils given easier ride than state school pupils during 2021 exams, stats show

Scotland’s exam system for 2021 favoured private school pupils over state school pupils as the attainment gap between the two widened during the pandemic, new data suggests.

Data released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which has broken down attainment data by the type of school for the first time, shows the rate of A grades among private school pupils rose faster in 2021 compared to state school children.

The failure rate – those who did not achieve a grade between A to C – also rose among state school pupils faster than among private school pupils.

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The 2021 exams saw A grades go up more for private school pupils than state school pupils.

Figures also show a widening of the attainment gap between private schools and state schools after several years of narrowing.

The Scottish Conservatives said the figures showed the SNP had “lost all ambition” in closing the attainment gap, while coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, said a fundamental rethink of exams was required.

The figures show for Higher and Advanced Higher, the number of A grades awarded rose faster among those at independent schools than at state schools.

At Higher, A grades rose by 7.6 percentage points among state school pupils, with private schools recording a rise of 8.6 percentage points.

Advanced Higher grades demonstrated a similar pattern, with state school A grades rising by five percentage points and by 5.5 per cent among private school pupils.

However, at National 5, A grades rose by 4.4 percentage points among state school pupils compared to four points at private schools.

The data also indicates that the 2021 made exams harder to pass overall, but that this disproportionately affected state school pupils.

At National 5 (2.1 percentage point rise), Higher (1.9), and Advanced Higher (2.2), state school rates of 'no awards’ grew at around twice the rate of private school pupils, who saw rises of 0.7, 0.6, and 0.6 respectively across the different national qualifications.

This is in direct contrast with the approach last year of teacher judgement alone rather than the ‘demonstrated attainment’ approach of 2021, which required some form of assessment during the year.

In 2020, the pass rate for state school pupils rose at a faster rate than it did for private school pupils across all three major qualifications, while state schools also saw higher reductions of the fail rate than private schools.

Education spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, Ross Greer, said the figures showed how “shocking levels of inequality are baked into Scottish education”.

He said: “These stats show the need to fundamentally rethink our national qualifications system. Last year’s exams shambles demonstrated that shocking levels of inequality are baked into Scottish education. They were not a one-off.

“As we take forward the OECD’s recommended reforms, we must put measures which close this attainment gap at the heart of the new system.”

Figures also showed in private schools, more than three quarters (75.6 per cent) of those doing Highers this year were awarded an A grade, while this result was only achieved by less than half (47.6 per cent) of all those sitting Higher exams.

Responding, Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Oliver Mundell said the education system delivers “equity in name only”.

He said: “Without further investment to help pupils catch up and a clear plan to restore consistent standards in our education system, this generation are going to be left behind with fewer opportunities available to them.

“For those growing up in our most deprived communities, the SNP’s broken promises risk irreparable damage to their future prospects. The lack of progress and priority from SNP ministers falls far short of what young people across Scotland deserve.”

Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson Michael Marra added: “The statistics out today confirm once again that the SNP and SQA designed a system this year which widened and engrained Scotland’s already substantial attainment gap.

“We have seen the most privileged pupils benefit, and the poorest lose out by design. Far from closing the gap – as was supposed to be their ‘defining mission’ – they have made it worse, and it is the poorest pupils in Scotland who pay the price of the government’s failure.”

Responding to the criticism, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We remain committed to closing the attainment gap and ensuring that every young person has the chance to fulfil their potential.

“This year’s SQA results saw a narrower poverty-related attainment gap compared with 2019, and the number of university acceptances from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland reached a record high for SQA Results Day.

“Progress has been made, but we know there is more to do. That’s why we are investing a further £1 billion over the course of this Parliament to help to close the attainment gap.

“The attainment gap between pupils in state and independent schools for passes in Highers and Advanced Highers was narrower in 2021 than in 2019.”

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