Coronavirus: Union warns grades must be fair for all

This year’s exam results will be based on teacher estimates, but there should be no pressure to ‘push grades up’, says SSTA

Emma Seith

Coronavirus: Union warns grades must be fair for all

In the wake of exams being cancelled in Scotland, and the national exam body revealing yesterday that teacher estimates will be “the core element of the certification process” this year, a teaching union has told parents and school leaders not to “force teachers to up their grades”.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), is warning that teachers could come under pressure to improve their estimates.

“What we don’t want now is schools cheating the system," said Mr Searson. "We need to make sure this is fair for every youngster not just those able to manipulate the system to take advantage. We need the government and local authorities to reassure teachers that their judgements will be supported by their employers."


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Mr Searson added: "Schools are under a lot of pressure from parents and local authorities and government to raise standards – that’s been part of the system for a number of years, it’s not something new. But we want to put the control back in the hands of teachers so they can make the right decision based on their knowledge of the youngsters.”

In the past, teachers have raised concerns about the pressure they have been put under to pass pupils at National 4 level, a qualification which has no external exam and is based on continuous assessment.

In guidance issued yesterday, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said that teachers should base their estimates on “the assessment evidence available” and there was “no requirement to set additional mock or prelim exams or homework tasks for the purpose of determining a learner estimate”.

However, Mr Searson said some schools were continuing to gather additional evidence so they had leverage when it came to appealing results. The SQA has also announced that post-results process would be free this year.

“Only yesterday we heard of a school putting pupils through prelims,” said Mr Searson. He called on teachers to “stick to their guns” when it came to their estimates.

He added: “If we get this right and teacher judgement is valued, the question we are going to have to ask is – why can’t we use a similar system in the future?”

Mr Searson suggested that that may come to pass if there is a second surge of coronavirus, or if schools were unable to return until the autumn.

Meanwhile, Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (SLS), welcomed the SQA statement and said his members were pleased to now have clarity around what would be expected of them and when.

“We had to come out of this with dates and deadlines and what would be expected by those dates and deadlines and we have got that clarity now,” he said.

In its statement, the SQA said the deadline for teacher estimates would be extended from 24 April to 29 May and that more detailed guidance on estimates would be issued by 20 April.

Mr Thewliss said for some staff it would be “back to the future” because the way teachers were being asked to rank their pupils was similar to the “order of merit” teachers had to compile under the O grades which were phased out in the 1980s.

He said SQA would be able to use pupils’ previous performance – if they had sat National 4s or 5s, for instance, in previous years – as well as schools “longitudinal performance” to confirm and verify teacher estimates.

“It is reasonable to assume that if SQA knows school A always puts in consistent estimates and is always on the mark it is going to conclude it can depend on the results coming out of that school.”

He added: “No system now is going to be perfect. Schools and teachers and kids are committed to a system whereby at the end of that system you sit an exam and a large part of what you are going to achieve is based on that. Any alternative by its very nature is going to be imperfect. Our members are supportive and are saying the system being proposed is as good as we could have expected."

The EIS union has also responded today to the SQA statement, in an email message to members which also appears on its website.

Its general secretary Larry Flanagan said: "Applying a more differentiated estimate approach, and re-introducing ranking, appears to be a belt-and-braces approach from the SQA which, combined with looking at previous concordance between estimates and performance and also progression pathways from National 5 grades to Higher grades, means that teacher estimates will have been subjected to a fairly rigorous moderation process which should mean that final awards have an added degree of validation, and any undue pressure on teachers about estimates can be rebuffed more easily.

"The re-establishment of a free post-results service [an appeals process] is welcome, as this provides an external final arbiter for awards.

"In relation to other awards which do not have an external exam, many of which are delivered by colleges, the principle of professional judgement based on existing evidence is again centre stage, although the detail is not clear for all awards as some of them are linked to regulatory thresholds."

Mr Flanagan added: "The extension of deadline dates for submission is welcome, also, providing a little breathing space for consideration of existing candidate evidence and the preparation of estimates and cohort rankings."

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for TES Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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