'This is the same shambles as 2020 – just more sleekit'

First minister Nicola Sturgeon faces accusations that a second grading crisis is looming in Scotland

Tes Reporter

SQA assessment: 'The 2021 exams crisis has already started,' the Scottish Conservative leader has told first minister Nicola Sturgeon (Copyright holder: PA WIRE Copyright notice: PA Wire/PA Images Picture by: Russell Cheyne)

The system for awarding Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) grades in 2021 is a “world away” from last year’s results scandal, Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has insisted, despite claims from opposition leaders that youngsters face a “second exams crisis”.

Thousands of students saw their results downgraded last year, with the subsequent outcry forcing a U-turn a week later from ministers and original grades being reinstated.

But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has now said this year’s methods for awarding marks are “more sleekit”. At First Minister's Questions this afternoon, he said: “Once again young people will lose out, based solely on where they go to school.”


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Mr Ross said many councils were taking “historical attainment data” into account when teachers decide what results students should get.

The coronavirus crisis has forced the cancellation of national exams for the second year in a row. Bu students still had to sit many exam-like assessments this year, with questions also being raised about an appeals system that means youngsters could see their results downgraded.

SQA assessment: 'The 2021 exams crisis has already started,' says Tory leader 

Tes Scotland has also highlighted concerns about assessment papers being widely shared on social media platforms such as TikTok.

Mr Ross said: “The life chances of tens of thousands of young people are at stake.

“The 2021 exams crisis has already started. But this government acts as if nothing is wrong.

“Pupils were told ‘no exams this year’, except everyone knows they have sat exams in all but name.”

He added: “Parents were promised no historical data would be used, except we know that is exactly what is happening.

“Teachers were told grades would be based on their judgment alone, except there is an algorithm lurking in the background.

“Young people feel cheated by another deeply unfair system that judges them on where they are from, not how they did.”

Mr Ross told the first minister that a recent Education Scotland report – highlighted by Tes Scotland last week  revealed that three-quarters of councils are using historical attainment data when deciding results.

Mr Ross said this means that in Inverclyde there were “data analysis meetings” taking place before grades were submitted, and that City of Edinburgh Council is “making adjustments based on previous attainment data”, while East Renfrewshire “has a checklist to make sure that teachers compare this year’s grades to the last three years”.

He added: “This is the same shambles as last year – it is just more sleekit. Because instead of the SQA marking pupils down at the end of the process, the system will force teachers and schools to do it first.”

Ms Sturgeon insisted that is “simply not the case”.

She added: “When the provisional grades are submitted to the SQA, they will not be changed because of a school’s past performance.

“That is a world away from the situation last year, where algorithms and the past performance of schools automatically changed the performance and the grades of some schools. That is not happening.

“This is a system that is based on teacher judgment, evidenced by the work that pupils have actually done throughout the year.

“Awards this year are based on teacher judgment, teachers arrive at those judgments by looking at the attainment, the work, that pupils have done.

“There are no past results or algorithms that dictate what an individual learner’s grade will be.”

She said a school’s results could be “reviewed” if they appear to be “out of step with previous years”.

But the first minister insisted that this is simply a quality-assurance check and “not the operation of an algorithm automatically downgrading pupils, as would have happened last year”.

She said a “key part” of this year’s system is that if teachers “stand by the result they gave, that result stands – it is not changed”.

She also faced calls from both Mr Ross and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to guarantee that no student who appeals their marks will have that result downgraded.

A so-called “symmetrical model” is being used for appeals –  which can mean results being changed either up or down – with Ms Sturgeon saying such as system had been used in previous years and is also being used in England.

Mr Ross said the system means students will have to “roll the dice with their future”, while Mr Sarwar said Scotland is in the midst of a “second exams crisis”, as he called for a “no detriment” appeals system to be implemented.

The first minister said she recognised that there are “different views” on how the appeals process should be conducted.

But she added: “On balance, in common with other parts of the UK and past experience, it has been decided to adopt the symmetrical process, [which] is fair because it is based only on the attainment of young people.”

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