Scottish schools withdrawing pupils from Higher courses after poor assessment grades accused of ‘massaging results’

Some Scottish schools are withdrawing pupils from Higher courses if they performed badly in their summer assessments – to avoid failing grades being recorded.

Parents of some pupils who sat alternative assessments after the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) formal exams were cancelled this year due to the pandemic have been told their child’s provisional result was a fail – and they should therefore be withdrawn from the course before the entries are submitted to the SQA for formal grades to be assigned.

Doing so would mean there would be no record of the child ever having taken a course in that particular subject – leaving no trace of a failing grade for either the pupil or the school.

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In place of formal exams, high school students are this year sitting ‘alternative assessments’, which are set by individual schools.

High school pupils have this year sat alternative assessments.
High school pupils have this year sat alternative assessments.

Pupils are to be told their provisional grades before the end of the summer term, to allow them to appeal if necessary – unusually, giving schools the chance to assess the gradings before they are passed on to the SQA for formal certification.

Opposition politicians warned that schools could be opting to withdraw pupils to remove failure grades from their record, which could affect standings in league tables next year.

Michael Marra, shadow education secretary for Scottish Labour, said: “This is simply unacceptable. We cannot have pupils who have been failed on their alternative assessment by their school deprived of the chance to send it on to the SQA for adjudication.

"By refusing to send potentially failing assessments to the SQA, young people are being denied the ability to access any appeals process at all.

“If schools are massaging the results and depriving the public of a true picture of attainment and qualification levels, that would be unacceptable. The pupils of Scotland have been badly failed by a chaotic exams process and a deeply flawed appeals process.”

He added: “The SQA and the Scottish Government had a year to learn the lessons of the 2020 exams fiasco – it seems that they have catastrophically failed to do so.”

Oliver Mundell, shadow education secretary for the Scottish Conservative, said: “If this is true, it is incredibly alarming that pupils may be asked to withdraw from a course before their grades are awarded. This is just another example of how flawed the SNP’s exam grading process is this year.

“This should be investigated urgently to find out if and where this happening. It would be unacceptable to treat pupils this way.”

One parent told The Scotsman she had received a message from her son’s school saying he was to be withdrawn from one of his Higher subjects – stating that he was “not in a position” to pass following the provisional results of the assessment.

She said: “It just seems like the school wants to keep any record of a failure off its stats by pretending that the pupils who have failed the assessments were never going to take them in the first place. It also means if we accept, we will have no right to appeal his grade.”

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A small number of pupils are withdrawn part-way through their Higher courses every year, often after receiving disappointing results at their preliminary exams in January. However, these exams were also cancelled this year as Scottish schools were closed due to lockdown.

Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer said schools telling parents their children should be withdrawn risked removing their right to appeal – ultimately potentially achieving a pass.

He said: “While it may occasionally be in a pupil’s interest to be withdrawn from a subject, that choice must ultimately be made by them rather than dictated to them.

"Schools and councils should be careful to avoid a situation where pupils may have had a reasonable chance of success on appeal, only for that opportunity to be removed by a course withdrawal the pupil was not in agreement with.”

An SQA spokesman said the exams authority was not aware of whether or not a pupil was taking a certain course until an exam – or this year, alternative assessment grade – is submitted.

He said: “Teachers and lecturers know their learners best. If parents, carers or young people have any concerns, then they should speak to their teacher or lecturer first.

“It is a decision for the school or college, in consultation with learners and their parents/carers, as to whether or not a candidate is entered for a qualification. Everyone working in Scottish education wants our young people to succeed and move on to the next stage of their lives with confidence.”

A spokesman for the EIS said the union was “not aware of this as an issue in schools”.

He added: “Pupils sometimes do withdraw from courses or change levels but there is no particular detriment to an individual from an accurate record of their attainment.”

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “As with any other academic year, teachers have ongoing conversations with pupils about their progress and any concerns they may have.

“The Scottish Government, along with the whole education system, wants our young people to succeed and move on to the path that is right for them. The decision if a candidate is entered for their qualification is one for the school or college, in consultation with learners and their parents/carers."

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