There’s something not right about the Scottish Qualifications Authority exam appeals system. The Labour MSP Iain Gray says what’s not right is that it is “tilted in favour of private schools” because we are more likely than council schools to use it. He seems to think there is some kind of skulduggery in our using a system set up by a public authority to ensure that the young people of Scotland get the exam grades they deserve.
Surely what is really wrong is that the 96 per cent of Scotland’s young people who attend council-run schools are discouraged, perhaps even prevented, from having access to that system by councils that won’t fund the appeals. As a result, there must be thousands who took national qualifications in last year’s exam diet who did better than their grades suggest but who will never know it. No doubt amongst them are many whose lives will, therefore, take a different course, perhaps some whose confidence will have been affected and who may not go on to achieve the level of academic or professional success of which they are capable.
And it’s not a notional risk. In both independent and council schools about 14 per cent of appeals result in an increased grade (and, incidentally, if we were really abusing the system, you’d surely expect the success rates to vary significantly between the sectors). Even accepting that those who appeal are those who think they’ve been hard done by, 14 per cent is a frighteningly high proportion. It might serve the young people of Scotland better if Iain Gray and other MSPs asked a few more searching questions of SQA about its quality-assurance processes. That would help to ensure that no school, be it state or independent, in future has to rely on the appeals process to get justice for pupils.
Whenever headteachers get together after results day, there are stories of standards fluctuating without obvious justification and of bizarre and improbable results for some individuals or cohorts in particular exams. In 2018, we had one set of grades that seemed to correlate more with the initial letter of the candidates’ surname than with their prelim results or predicted grades.
How to the improve exam appeals system
I have a solution to all this. SQA should make all exam scripts available to teachers and candidates after marking. In England, the private exam board Pearson Edexcel does that instantly, online and for free on the same day that results come out. It can be done where there is a will to do it. It should be done in Scotland because, as a public sector monopoly, SQA owes at least the same duty of transparency to its candidates as does a private-sector provider in England.
Making marked scripts available would have two beneficial effects. Firstly, transparency is a spur to good practice. If I’m right and there are systematic shortcomings in the implementation of quality-assurance measures within SQA, this would flush them out and ensure they are addressed. And if I’m wrong, I can stop worrying.
But it would also answer Iain Gray’s point about a “tilted” appeals system. No independent school is going to pay for an appeal that obviously has no chance of success. Equally, it would be a total scandal if a council failed to fund an appeal against a result that was demonstrably wrong.
I’m told that some colleague heads are against making scripts available, fearing increased bureaucracy and more challenge from parents. Those may be justified fears. But if I were a pupil taking SQA exams in 2019, I would demand nothing less. And I would be asking my MSPs why they weren’t demanding it, too.
Melvyn Roffe is principal of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh