By A Scottish teacher
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Downgrades of Scottish exam results shows class bias

This article is over 3 years, 3 months old
Issue 2717
Scottish teachers marched in 2018
Scottish teachers marched in 2018 (Pic: Andrew McGowan)

Scottish teachers’ judgements about pupils’ exam grades have been overruled, and there’s a strong element of class inequality built into the process.

On Tuesday the Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA) published finalised grades for this year’s exams.

Much to the dismay of many students, families and teachers, the SQA altered teachers’ predicted grades in over 130,000 cases—nearly 25 percent of all students.

Teachers’ estimates were lowered by the private, for-profit organisation with a monopoly Scottish Government contract to set the curriculum. It is another example of a quango with a bloated management with big expense accounts.

To make matters much worse, students from lower income areas had their grades lowered by more than students from more wealthy areas.

For example, in Higher exams, for students in the lowest income area schools, the SQA lowered the pass rate—percentage of pupils who passed—by 15.2 percent. In the most-wealthy area schools, the pass rate was reduced by 6.9 percent.

The SQA lowered pupils’ grades more in lower income area schools based on the past performance of the school, not the individual student. The message is clear—the SQA doesn’t believe that “pupils from places like that” can get good grades.

One pupil from a deprived area who was expected to get As but has ended up with Cs and Ds told Channel 4, “Somehow I’ve failed an exam I didn’t sit.”

Disgracefully the Scottish government has defended the process. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “I would love to be in the position of standing here credibly saying that 85 percent of the 20 percent of pupils in the most deprived areas had passed Higher.

“But given that it was 65 percent last year, that would raise a real credibility issue.”


The 2019-20 school year was already anything but normal or easy for students and their families. They had to adapt and try to cope with a global pandemic, rapidly rising death tolls and looming economic catastrophe. There was increasing unemployment for parents, families and pupils leaving school and looking for jobs or a place at university.

Students and families endured the months of economic and mental distress of lockdown. During all this chaos and disruption pupils and families tried to continue to learn online from home, often without adequate work space, Wi-Fi or access to computers.

Many students were accessing lessons on their smartphones.

Meanwhile teachers spent three months supporting learners by developing, delivering and evaluating online learning for their classes. Some teachers were also staffing hubs to support the children of frontline workers.

As the loss of life during the first wave of the pandemic went from bad to worse, Scottish teachers were not surprised to see the SQA cancel the national qualification exams (National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher) for the first time ever.

Teachers then gathered together preliminary exam and other test results as well as pupil coursework. That evidence was combined with teacher judgement about the performance and progress of each individual student to come up with a predicted grade estimate.

The predicted grades were then moderated—reviewed—at the level of the department and the school.


This process involved a huge amount of careful thought and effort for each pupil and was led by teachers who had been working with the pupil since August of 2019 and in many cases for years before that.

The predicted grades were submitted to the SQA for a final round of national moderation.

Exams are never a satisfactory way to assess a pupil’s learning but the SQA have managed to maintain the attainment gap without anyone taking any exams. Some achievement.

Sturgeon might sound good, but the virus has been a disaster in Scotland
Sturgeon might sound good, but the virus has been a disaster in Scotland
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To really tackle the attainment gap we need investment in schools, smaller class sizes, proper provision for students whose first language is not English, and money for additional needs. Crucially there has to be a reversal of the cuts in public spending during the years of austerity.

Lowering students’ grades based on what school they attend and the past performance of that school says that all pupils at a school are the same and will be much the same every year.

A petition calling to “make the SQA re-evaluate results” not “based on a classist marking scheme” gained over 9,000 signatures in the first 12 hours online.

This scandal underlines the failings of an education system based on tests, grades and sorting people into boxes in the interests of business.

Of course, we also need schools to be safe places for staff and pupils as they start to return next week after the school holidays.

Unions need to support staff taking measures to stay safe in schools. Test and Trace is still not effective on a scale required for schools in Scotland. Many teachers are anxious about the return and still do not know if appropriate measures are in place.


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