Gina Davidson: Nicola Sturgeon must soul search some more and save pupils from this chaos

Last year, in the face of an outpouring of anger and upset from Scottish pupils over the way they were treated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Nicola Sturgeon said that while ministers had taken “decisions we thought were the right ones” after “a lot of soul searching” they had now accepted they were wrong.

Students protest outside the Scottish Parliament earlier this month about issues with this year's exams. PIC: Lisa Ferguson.
Students protest outside the Scottish Parliament earlier this month about issues with this year's exams. PIC: Lisa Ferguson.

Senior school pupils and college students had taken to the streets to protest about how the SQA had “moderated” their grades – leaving 125,000 with worse results than their teachers predicted after formal exams were cancelled.

Such was the furore, a thing rarer than the sight of hen's teeth happened in Scottish politics: the First Minister admitted a mistake and the original results were, rightly, reinstated.

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How much soul-searching is being done this year I wonder? At time of writing, it’s fair to say, none.

How much louder and angrier will pupils (and parents and teachers) have to be to get a similar outcome from Nicola Sturgeon and her new education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville this year? Get your ear-defenders ready.

For there is undoubtedly going to be a price to pay for the shambles of this year’s exam diet – and let’s accept that is what pupils from fourth to sixth year sat, even if they did so in classrooms rather than assembly halls. But the price should not be a potentially diminished future for those children affected by yet another institutional cock up.

The world is not fair, many adults will cry dismissively. Kids need to get used to that early. Anyone with teenagers know they are already well too aware of that – nowhere are differences in families’ station in life more apparent than in a state secondary school playground.

And Covid, as we are continually told, has exacerbated all of society’s inequalities. The idea that it would not have an impact on the education of those children already in poverty, struggling in chaotic households, with additional special needs, with caring responsibilities, or in care themselves, is for the birds.

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Yet rather than sticking to the pledge that attainment would be based on teacher judgement over the course of the hugely disrupted year, pupils were forced into sink-or-swim assessments. And now, as The Scotsman revealed yesterday, pupils are being told they’re being withdrawn from the assessments, after they have failed and as if they never existed, in order to keep the school statistics healthy.

Discussions about withdrawing candidates from exams usually happens after prelims if the child has failed. For many, especially teenage boys, such a move spurs them on to ensure they pass their final exam. This year though there were no prelims, and so children are getting no second chances.

It beggars belief that a government which harps on about making Scotland the best country in which to grow up is putting its senior school children through the wringer in this way.

Nicola Sturgeon last year made a promise to children in care, saying she would fix a care system was "fractured, bureaucratic, unfeeling, stigmatising, and mired in impersonal language”. Precisely the same words could be used of the SQA and her own government. Will she search her soul and find room to fix that too?

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