Scots schools braced for ‘tidal wave’ of exam appeals

Scots pupils being awarded Highers and Nationals this year could have their grades marked down without their teachers being consulted by exam chiefs, it has emerged.

File picture of pupils ahead of their exam results being delivered by text at Kilgraston independent school for girls in Bridge of Earn, Perth.
File picture of pupils ahead of their exam results being delivered by text at Kilgraston independent school for girls in Bridge of Earn, Perth.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), presiding over an “unprecedented” grading situation this year, says it is dealing with more than 20,000 papers and will not have the time to go around all schools where it changes marks submitted by teachers.

But pupils will still be free to appeal any results they don’t agree with.

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Teaching unions and opposition parties have hit out at the move and warned that it will lead to a “tidal wave” of appeals. Grades this year for National 5s, Higher and Advanced Highers will be based on teacher estimates, built around prelim results and submitted course work. Controversially, though, the previous performance of the school in exams will also be taken into account.

The plan was rolled out across Scotland after the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, causing all exams to be cancelled.

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson has previously indicated the body would look at whether teachers could be consulted before the estimates submitted by schools are marked up or down.

But that has now been ruled out in a letter to Holyrood’s education committee.

“We have considered the matter very carefully, including further discussions with our board of management, and we have concluded that it will not be possible to include engagement with schools and colleges within the moderation process,” she said.

“There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the difficulty of operating a dialogue, which is fair and consistent in its treatment of all centres and candidates.

“Secondly, it is not possible to enter into a dialogue in the very tight timescales we are working to – reviewing 22,000 datasets across 142 subjects from almost 500 centres – between the receipt of estimates and finalisation of grades which, for awarding purposes, are required by 10 July.”

The estimated grades for Scots pupils, and the evidence which was used to reach them, was submitted by schools to the SQA at the end of May.

Assessors are now working their way through these with the results due to be sent out at the start of August. “The scale and complexity of the changes required, and at this time of year, are simply unprecedented, Ms Robertson adds.

Pupils will be able to go through a free appeals process this year, Ms Robertson said, to provide “further, evidence-based consideration of grades if schools and colleges do not think awarded grades fairly reflect performance”.

Priority in the appeals process will be given to requests from pupils who are depending on the results they receive to secure a conditional place at college or university.

MSPs have previously been told that grades provided by teacher judgment may be moderated if a school’s results differ in “shape and distribution” from previous years.

But Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said: “Teachers will be justifiably angry at the suggestion that the SQA could moderate a pupil’s grades without any professional dialogue with presenting centres.

“We have been clear from the outset that the professional judgment of teachers should have primacy over statistical modelling in determining students’ grades.

“The EIS has confidence in those judgments and the estimates flowing from them. If the SQA’s moderation processes had raised anomalies, this should have led to local discussions to resolve issues.

“Frankly, if the SQA overturns teacher estimates on any scale it will invoke a tidal wave of appeals and risk undermining confidence in the accreditation system. The timing of this announcement, days after most schools have broken up for summer, will be viewed with a deal of scepticism.”

Greens education spokesman Ross Greer also hit out at the approach. “The SQA are undermining not only the professional judgment of teachers, but the hard work of pupils with this secret moderation process,” he said. “Applying a system that penalises pupils who go to schools in deprived communities is bad enough, but to do so in secret is utterly unacceptable.”

Teachers will now be faced with having to understand why the grade they submitted has been altered, as well as the methodology used to alter it, all just days before schools return for the new term and with a huge volume of additional work if they and their pupil wish to appeal.

Mr Greer said: “Parliament’s education committee have repeatedly told the SQA to publish details of this grading system. Confidence in the SQA relies on fairness and transparency, but many teachers, pupils and parents feel they are not being treated with respect.”

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