Scotland exam results: SNP ministers accused of betraying poorer children over attainment gap

The attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils in Scotland has almost doubled since last year, exam results show, sparking claims the Scottish Government is betraying children from deprived areas.

Critics said the poorest young people in Scotland were being “penalised”, but education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said comparisons with last year, when exams were cancelled for the second time, were “exceptionally unfair”.

Figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) show the number of pupils in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland achieving an A to C pass at Higher this year was 70.2 per cent, down from 83.2 per cent last year.

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SQA denies 'manipulation of exam result figures' as attainment gap widens and im...
Picture: John DevlinPicture: John Devlin
Picture: John Devlin

In the 20 per cent least deprived areas, the Higher pass rate stood at 85.1 per cent, down from 91 per cent last year when teacher assessments were used.

The SQA said the attainment gap between the most and least deprived areas of Scotland was 15 percentage points in 2022, up from 7.8 percentage points in 2021.

However, the gap is narrower than in 2019, when it was 16.9 percentage points.

More than 130,000 pupils across Scotland have received their grades following the first full exam diet since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Pass rates across Advanced Higher, Higher and National 5 qualifications fell from the record highs seen during the Covid crisis, but increased compared to 2019.

The Higher pass rate was 78.9 per cent, down from 87.3 per cent in 2021 and 89.3 per cent in 2020, but up from 74.8 per cent in 2019 – the last year before the pandemic hit.

The percentage of A grades at Higher level was 34.8 per cent this year, a decrease of 12.8 percentage points from last year.

For National 5 qualifications, the pass rate was 80.8 per cent, down from 85.8 per cent in 2021 and up from 78.2 per cent in 2019.

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A package of support was provided this year to reflect ongoing disruption from coronavirus.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Oliver Mundell congratulated “all those who have achieved the grades they hoped for”.

But he said: “While pupils and teachers have done their best, we can’t ignore the abject failure of the SNP Government, and their betrayal of kids from the most deprived parts of Scotland.

“The widening attainment gap is a badge of shame for the First Minister and a shocking indictment of the SNP’s dismal record on education.

“Nicola Sturgeon described eliminating it as the ‘defining mission’ of her Government and yet this year the gap has widened to a chasm yet again.

“Most telling is the differential in A grade passes at Higher because these are crucial in determining which pupils gain access to the most sought-after university courses.

“It’s unforgivable that year after year, talented pupils from poorer parts of the country are being failed by the SNP. But it seems they are no longer serious about tackling this issue.”

During a visit to Stirling High School on Tuesday, Ms Somerville said young people had achieved a "really strong set of results".

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She said: "I think you can't compare last year when we were under emergency circumstances and an entirely different assessment model, to this year in which we've had a return to exams – not a return to normal, but still a return to exams.

"So I think that's an exceptionally unfair comparison to make."

She said the Scottish Government’s pledge to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026 “absolutely stands”, adding: "We know that this is more challenging because of the impact of Covid, but when you look at the exam results this year, when you compare it to the last year that had exams, we have seen a slight closure in the attainment gap."

Ms Somerville added: "We are absolutely determined to see that substantial elimination.”

Paul Cassidy, head teacher at Stirling High, said young people had experienced a “challenging couple of years” and had “really come through”.

Earlier, SQA bosses told a press conference there was no “statistical manipulation” of exam result figures.

Chief executive Fiona Robertson said it was important to treat this year’s learners “fairly” whilst maintaining the "standards and credibility” of qualifications.

She said comparisons with previous years needed to be treated “with caution” due to different assessment approaches over the past few years.

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Ms Robertson said: "While it has been a return to exams, it has not been a normal year. Our job is to have a fair assessment system and that’s what we’ve done.

"As a rewarding body, we’ve done all that we can to address disruption to learning, but obviously what is really important is the learning and teaching and support the Government has in place.”

Ms Robertson added: "There’s no alternative set of results, these are the results.”

Robert Quinn, head of service at the SQA, said: “Candidates results today are based on their own individual endeavours. There’s no other statistical manipulation. It is based on that demonstrated evidence.”

Mr Quinn said assessments this year had “landed well” in terms of a “fair test” of candidate ability.

Denying there was a request from the Government on where pass rate should lie this year, Ms Robertson said: "We look at a range of information and in a normal year we are looking at how the assessment has performed and using that information to inform fair awarding decisions.

"For most courses, we lowered the pass mark at which a young person could get a C grade.”

However, the grade boundary for an A in Higher English was 68 per cent this year, compared to 67 per cent in 2019, before the disruption caused by the pandemic.

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The SQA said a generous approach was taken, with modifications made to papers.

For example, in National 5 English, pupils were given advanced sight of the relevant text months ahead of the exam.

But Scottish Labour education spokesman Michael Marra said: “The SNP Government has reverted to a system that penalises the poorest young people in Scotland.

"They have done so knowingly, purposefully and – worst of all – without any plan to change the situation.

"This SNP administration has dramatically cut funding to the poorest communities in Scotland and we are years away from any substantive reform.

"They have no plan, no leadership and their continued failings in this work are a rolling national scandal.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie said: "Our students deserve more from their Scottish Government than desperate spinning about the closure of the poverty-related attainment gap.

"At best the gap is stagnant, at worst it has widened depending on which year is used as a comparison.

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"The SNP promised the gap would close by 2026 and these results show that the Government have little chance of achieving their number one priority.

“Over the coming weeks we will be keeping an eye on how appeals, university entries and exam reform are being handled.

"These results show the need for urgent reform not yet more sloth-like dithering."

Separate figures showed the gap between university admission rates in the least and most affluent areas was 26.7 percentage points.

The acceptance rate for 18-year-olds in the poorest areas stood at 14.6 per cent this year, compared to 41.3 per cent for the richest.

When compared to the last exam diet in 2019, the gap has reduced, while acceptance rates on the whole have increased from 11.4 per cent and 39.6 per cent respectively.



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