Scottish exams 2020: SQA exam controversy explained as pupils to have results upgraded - and if John Swinney will resign

John Swinney said the system had set out to be ;fair and credible; but admitted “we did not get it right for every young person’

The Scottish government has agreed to accept teacher estimates of scores, meaning tens of thousands of school pupils will have their exam results upgraded.

On Tuesday (11 August), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologised to pupils who had their exam results downgraded, and pledged they will not have to face laborious appeals processes.

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School students demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament over the downgrading of exam results by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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What happened with Scottish exam results?

With the coronavirus crisis forcing the closure of schools and impacting the Scottish school year immeasurably, it was clear that exam grades would not be able to be reached through traditional means this year.

With exams cancelled, the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) announced that to award grades for pupils, teachers should use their professional judgement to provide estimates based on a pupil's activity over the school year.

Scottish Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills John Swinney as he delivers the Ministerial Statement on the SQA Exam Results 2020 in the Scottish Parliament on August 11 (Photo: Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images)

With teachers awarding noticeably more A grades than in previous years, the SQA accepted almost three-quarters of estimates, but 124,564 results dropped down a grade when the exam board got involved.

What has changed?

Apologising for the fiasco, embattled Scottish Education Secretary, John Swinney said he understood the “anger and anguish” caused by the moderation system, which most impacted teenagers in deprived areas.

He said the system had set out to be “fair and credible” but admitted “we did not get it right for every young person and I want to apologise for that”.

Using powers in the Education (Scotland) Act of 1996, he said he would direct the SQA to reissue the awards “based solely on teacher or lecturer judgements” and that new certificates would be issued “as soon as possible”.

The exams body is also expected to inform UCAS and other higher education admission bodies of the new grades in the coming days to allow for applications to college and university to be progressed.

Mr Swinney added that an “apology was not enough” and as a result “all downgraded exam grades will be withdrawn”, confirming that pupils who saw their grades moderated upwards would not be downgraded, and the planned appeals process would no longer be required.

“We were concerned that grade inflation would run the risk of undermining the value of grades,” added Swinney.

“We now accept that concern is outweighed by the concern that young people, from working class backgrounds, may lose faith in the system - that it is stacked against them.

“Education is the route out of poverty for young people in deprived communities, and we cannot allow that view to take hold.”

Will John Swinney resign?

Despite bowing to pressure from young people and parents and withdrawing the downgraded exam results, Mr Swinney is facing continued calls to resign, and he will face a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday (13 August).

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray said the “humiliating climbdown” was a victory for fairness, for common sense and above all for those young people who refused to take this injustice lying down”, but urged Swinney to “take responsibility and resign”.

Mr Swinney - who previously admitted he knew the results five days before they were sent to pupils and consistently defended the SQA’s adjusting of grades - said his responsibility was to find a solution.

He said: “I’ve come here to do what young people in Scotland want me to do and that’s to fix it and I’ve done that right away at the earliest possible opportunity. I’ve done that openly and honestly in front of Parliament.”

Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said Mr Swinney’s announcement was a “resignation statement without the resignation”, and while the u-turn was welcome, it was “overdue” and had not “restored confidence in his ability to manage Scotland’s schools.”

It is expected the vote of no confidence will fall, with Mr Swinney being backed by the Scottish Greens.