Young people should have been central to the 2020 SQA alternative grading process and, although the Priestley report engaged with a range of young people and organisations advocating on their behalf, the message from the Scottish government over the past few weeks fails to appreciate that the rights of children have been breached in 2020.
Priestley review of SQA results fiasco: 17 key findings
More on the review: SQA results fiasco 'could have been partially avoided'
For many young people and their parents, writing to deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney pleading with him to widen the appeals criteria following his announcement of 11 August was their last hope. After requesting appeals from schools that were refused due to insufficient grounds of appeal or rejected by schools that were reluctant to believe that they had discriminated against their pupils, many students were left with nowhere to turn. It is, of course, important to acknowledge that schools were put in a difficult position, something the Priestley report itself acknowledges has impacted on student-teacher relations.
SQA results 2020: Vulnerable students disadvantaged
Despite the report’s findings, one of the most significant challenges for the Scottish government appears to be admitting that the appeals service of 2020 was not fit for purpose. We have previously argued that there should be a child-centred approach to the appeals process. Without this, those students most disadvantaged by the SQA process in 2020 continue to feel the impact of a system that was anything but fair. The Priestley report vindicates this position by stating that the "decision to limit the ground for appeals seems to us to be both unnecessary and counter-productive".
Indeed, those most adversely affected by the 2020 alternative certification model have been identified by the report as: children with learning disabilities, young carers and care-experienced young people, including those with extenuating circumstances. However, these young people still await a form of redress – they appear to have been forgotten by the Scottish government.
Indeed, the issue of individuals who have been disadvantaged by the SQA processes of 2020 but have no right to redress was raised by the Education and Skills Committee. Citing our own evidence and that evidence provided by SQA: Where’s Our Say?, the committee specifically asked about the right to redress. In response, Mr Swinney said that “if a case can be put together that assess that some form of prejudice, disadvantage or discrimination was experienced by a young person, that can the subject of appeal”. However, this continues not to be the case. Disadvantaged students have been forgotten and cast aside.
While the message that "we will learn from 2020" is important, the fact that it comes with no action to mitigate the harms caused to this year’s students should make us all feel very uncomfortable. There is a continued inability to appreciate that the realisation of rights for children and young people does not require a system that is one-size-fits-all, and that is why the right to redress through a direct appeals process is required for those students who continue to suffer.
Surely this is a fundamental failing of the Scottish government to realise that the rights of young people really do matter, especially in 2020 when incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is so central to Scottish government policy.
To be clear, many of the students seeking to appeal were vulnerable young people who have protected characteristics under equality legislation. This view was shared by the Priestley review, which states that those who have been disadvantaged are “small numbers” who have “created a great deal of controversy”.
In a statement on 7 October, Mr Swinney said that the Scottish government “did not get it right for all young people”. He, however, claimed that the Scottish government had apologised and acted to fix the situation. This is not the case for all young people, and that is clear from the Priestley report. Mr Swinney needs to get it right for every child and that means mitigating the unforgivable disadvantages highlighted by the Priestley report. Fairness, after all, was intended to be central to the 2020 processes.
Dr Tracy Kirk is a legal academic in Scotland who specialises in children and youth rights. She tweets @DrTracyKirk
Rachael Hatfield is one of the young people who lead the SQA: Where’s Our Say? campaign (@SQAOurSay)