Scottish Government U-Turns Over Students' Grades After Outcry

Education secretary John Swinney's announcement comes after a computer algorithm lowered the poorest students' marks more than those of their richer peers.

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All school leavers’ grades that were lowered by “biased” computer algorithms in Scotland last week will be withdrawn and replaced by teacher assessments, the SNP-led government has confirmed.

The major U-turn by Scottish education secretary John Swinney comes amid mounting criticism that poorer students were hit hardest by modelling that gave them unfairly harsh results during the pandemic.

The results for Scotland’s Higher awards were last week branded a “disaster” after the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) downgraded 124,000 results.

Teachers, parents and pupils hit out at the SQA after the results downgraded teachers’ recommended awards for pupils from the poorest 20% of areas by more than 15 points, while recommendations for the best-off pupils were downgraded by just under 10 points.

Swinney, who may still face a vote of no confidence in Holyrood over the issue, has now said all grades moderated down will be withdrawn and new certificates sent out.

Meanwhile, no results that were moderated up will be cut back as Swinney said it would not “in any way be fair to do so”.

The news will pile pressure on Gavin Williamson, England’s education secretary, to avoid a similar catastrophe south of the border when A-level results are published this week, amid concern the same modelling could be used.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament, Swinney said he had “listened carefully to young people” and had moved to “fix” the problem quickly.

He said: “Using powers available to me in the Education (Scotland) Act 1996, I am today directing the SQA to re-issue those awards based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement.

“Schools will be able to confirm the estimates they provided for pupils to those that are returning to school this week and next.

“The SQA will issue fresh certificates to affected candidates as soon as possible and, importantly, will inform Ucas 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.”

He said that the SNP-led government was worried that accepting the original estimates from teachers “would run the risk of undermining the value of qualifications in 2020”.

But he then added: “In the light of events, and of listening to young people, we now accept that concern, which is not without foundation, is outweighed by the concern that young people, particularly from working class backgrounds may lose faith in the education system and form the view that no matter how hard you work, the system is against you.

“Education is the route out of poverty for young people in deprived communities and we cannot risk allowing that view to take hold.”

He added that the coronavirus crisis had made 2020 “unique” for pupils.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon on Monday apologised to thousands of pupils whose results were downgraded by the moderation process and pledged they would not face an arduous appeals process.

She accepted that the “burden has not fallen equally across society” and said” “We accept we didn’t get this right and I’m sorry for that.”

As a result of the changes the new Higher pass rate is up 14.4%, the National 5 pass rate is up 10.7%, and the Advanced Higher pass rate is up 13.7%.

Despite the U-turn, Swinney continues to face calls for his resignation including from the former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.

Meanwhile, the news has been welcomed by campaigners, including teenagers hit by the estimated results.

Erin Bleakley, 17, who organised a protest of around 100 students in Glasgow’s George Square against how the exam results were reached, said: “I think we would all like to say a generous thank you for not only the apology but the results being reverted back to teacher estimates.

“I did not think this day would come.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Today’s decision by John Swinney creates huge problems for Gavin Williamson and the English government.

“We now have two qualification systems required for entry into UK universities, operating on completely different criteria with wildly different pass rates. This can only increase the worries that students in England have about the fairness of the grades they will receive on Thursday.

“It will also intensify the competition with English students for university places.”