No bigger clanger has ever been dropped and none has received so much opprobrium in the 21 years the devolved Scottish parliament has been in existence, writes BILL HEANEY. The decision by the Scottish government to press ahead with their plan to downgrade this year’s examination results even made the lead item on BBC’s News at Six at least twice. It made newspaper headlines the world over. Scotland was to the fore – but for all the wrong reasons. Unlike the dictators of Belarus and Hong Kong though, the SNP-led government [eventually] put up their hands and confessed fully. This was not a just mea culpa though, it was mea maxima culpa, a confession of the magnitude no politician would ever wish to make.

It took great courage for the Cabinet Secretary for Education, John Swinney, to apologise for his mistake [he was at pains to underscore that it was his mistake and not an error by the Scottish Qualifications Authority] which impacted adversely on the results of the final exams for 124,000 students, who screamed out that they had been swindled out of their rightful results – despite the fact that because of Covid-19 and the pandemic. The worst element of the story was the disclosure that school pupils and college students from poor and deprived backgrounds were deliberately marked down by an average of 15 points, a move which was going to disqualify them from achieving entry to their chosen university and college courses and entry to the kind of employment they had chosen for their future. John Swinney made a fulsome apology to the parliament and to all those who had been adversely affected by his decision. Here is what he said:

By John Swinney Education Secretary

I will set out how I intend to resolve the issue. I can confirm to Parliament that all downgraded awards will be withdrawn. Using powers that are available to me in the Education (Scotland) Act 1996, I am today directing the SQA to reissue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgment. Schools will be able to confirm the estimates that they provided for pupils to those who are returning to school this week and next week. The SQA will issue fresh certificates to affected candidates as soon as possible and—this is important—will inform the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and other admission bodies of the new grades as soon as practical in the coming days to allow for applications to college and university to be progressed.

As the First Minister [Nicola Sturgeon] confirmed yesterday, in those cases in which moderation led to an increased grade, learners will not lose that award. Many of those young people will already have moved on to secure college or university places on the strength of the awards that were made to them. To unpick them now would not in any way be fair.

Due to the unique circumstances of the situation, we will this year make provision for enough places in universities and colleges to ensure that no one is crowded out of a place that they would otherwise have been awarded.

The outcomes from the 2020 SQA national qualifications will be updated, and a revised statistical release will be available from 31 August. However, I can confirm that the provisional revised 2020 results, based on the professional judgments of Scotland’s teachers and lecturers, can be summarised as follows: a national 5 pass rate of 88.9 per cent, which is 10.7 percentage points higher than in 2019; a higher pass rate of 89.2 per cent, which is 14.4 percentage points higher than in 2019; and an advanced higher pass rate of 93.1 per cent, which is 13.7 percentage points higher than in 2019. I can also confirm that the final new headline results for national 5s, highers and advanced highers will be published by 21 August.

A result of the change in approach to awarding qualifications is that there will no longer be the need for exactly the same appeals process that was planned to consider cases in which awarded grades were lower than teacher estimates. There remains the need for the option of an appeal in some circumstances. Detail on that will be set out by the end of the week.

There are many lessons that we need to learn from our experience through this pandemic and from the difficult decisions we have had to make in unprecedented circumstances.

The 2020 SQA results have sparked a lot of debate about the future of assessment and qualifications in Scotland and the best way to recognise learners’ achievements. We have already commissioned the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to conduct an independent review of the curriculum for excellence. A key focus of that exercise is curriculum design, and that already includes looking at our approach to assessment, qualifications and other achievements and how well they articulate with the curriculum, learning and teaching. We will work with our partners at the OECD with a view to extending the remit of the curriculum for excellence review to include recommendations on how to transform the Scottish approach to assessment and qualifications, based on best practice globally.

Even before a broader review takes place, however, we need to quickly look at the immediate lessons of this year’s awards process. Coronavirus has not gone away and, although we expect next year’s exams to go ahead, we need to put in place the right plans to make sure that we do not find ourselves in the same situation again.

I am aware that many teachers will be keen to understand fully the arrangements for national qualifications in 2021. The education recovery group has discussed a number of options in relation to this, and I confirm that the SQA will begin a rapid consultation exercise on options for change later this week. That will include consideration of key issues such as increasing optionality in question papers, removing components of course assessment and adjusting the volume of evidence required in coursework tasks.

In addition, however, I am today announcing that an independent review will be led by Professor Mark Priestley of the University of Stirling. The review will look at events following the cancellation of the examination diet and the alternative certification model that was put in place by the SQA. Areas to be considered include the advice provided to awarding centres by the SQA and local authorities; the approach developed in relation to estimating learners’ grades; teachers’ estimates; the moderation methodology used by the SQA; the proposed appeals process; the impact on young people and their families; transparency and the role of scrutiny of the process; and feedback received from teachers and lecturers on the grades that were awarded last week. Given the urgency, I have asked for an initial report within five weeks with recommendations on how we should go forward this coming year.

These are exceptional times and, in exceptional times, truly difficult decisions have to be made. It is deeply regrettable that we got this wrong, and I am sorry for that.

We have listened to young people and I hope that all will now feel satisfied that they have achieved the grades that their teachers and lecturers judged that they deserved. I assure Parliament that we will look to learn lessons from the process of awarding qualifications this year that will help to inform any future actions.

Finally, I would like to thank all of Scotland’s children, young people and adult learners for the incredible resilience they have shown throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. We are immensely proud of all that they have achieved. I hope that our pupils now move forward confidently to their next step in education, employment or training with the qualifications that teachers or lecturers have judged were deserved.

Covid has at times placed unbearable pressures on us all and I wish our learners well in building on the achievements they have justifiably been awarded in these most difficult of days.

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