SQA broke transparency rules in suppressing decade's worth of exam appeal figures

Scotland’s exam authority breached Freedom of Information legislation by suppressing the number of appeals upheld at different schools across the country.

In a scathing ruling by the Scottish Information Commissioner, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was told its arguments for withholding the figures “lacked evidence”.

The FOI was submitted in October 2020 when the SQA and the Scottish Government were under significant political pressure following the exam results scandal earlier in the year, during which thousands of pupils had their results downgraded to fit historical trends after the pandemic caused the cancellation of traditional exams.

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The appeal, submitted by a member of the public, surrounds the number of exam appeals upheld by school and school area for the past decade of National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams.

The SQA initially refused to provide any of the information, arguing it was personal information.

However, on appeal, the exams body disclosed the majority of the information, but withheld data where the number of upheld appeals were “less than five”.

Margaret Keyse, head of enforcement at the SIC, said the commissioner was not convinced this data would allow for anyone to be identified.

Exam appeal data was wrongly suppressed by the SQA

Public bodies are able to withhold data where they believe there is a realistic and demonstrable possibility that an individual would be identified by its release.

The ruling states: “However, the SQA has provided no evidence to show that this has been, or can realistically be, done.

"The possibility that it might conceivably be done in the future is immaterial here. Full consideration of the circumstances prevailing at that point (i.e. in the future) would be required before any decision on disclosure could be made.”

The statement adds: “The commissioner has carefully considered the SQA’s arguments (which, in his view, lack evidence) surrounding the identification of individuals as a direct result of the remaining withheld ‘less than five’ data, but is not persuaded that this would be more likely than would be the case for the ‘less than five’ figures already disclosed.

“In all the circumstances of the case, therefore, the commissioner does not agree that a realistic causal chain exists where living individuals could be identified as a direct result of disclosing the remaining withheld ‘less than five’ data.”

A spokesperson for the SQA said: “SQA acknowledges the findings of the Scottish Information Commissioner, and will publish the information requested.”

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